Great Fucking Albums #18: Mermaid Avenue

Yesterday, I talked about Woody Guthrie and specifically about how he was reincarnated as Jonathan Coulton and started writing songs about computer programmers instead of union organizers. Though Guthrie only got a brief mention in my article that was ostensibly about Marian Call and the pros and cons of nerd culture, the socialist folkie has been on my mind a lot this week, mostly because I’ve been listening to Mermaid Avenue a lot.

Mermaid Avenue is the Brooklyn street upon which Woody Guthrie and his family lived in the years after World War II (before Guthrie moved to the hospital where he spent his final years). The album Mermaid Avenue is both for sure a Woody Guthrie album and kind of also not a Woody Guthrie album. Some clarification: back in 1995, Nora Guthrie approached British leftist folkie Billy Bragg (if you haven’t heard Billy Bragg, there are two songs you need to know right now: “Help Save the Youth of America” and “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward”) and offered him the opportunity to write some new music for some of her father’s “lost” songs. In the liner notes to Mermaid Avenue, Bragg claims he had access to “over a thousand complete lyrics.” Bragg drafted Wilco to help him flesh out the tunes and Mermaid Avenue was born. Technically, the album is credited to Billy Bragg and Wilco, but it’s Billy Bragg and Wilco singing the lost songs of Woody Guthrie (a second volume was released in 2000 and rumors abound of a third volume in the works). Bragg says (again in the liner notes) that Nora Guthrie really wanted him to work “with her father to give his words a new sound and a new context.”

That new context could rightly be viewed as a coronation of Woody Guthrie as the raison d’etre for every alt.country wannabe that ever graced the pages of No Depression. Guthrie influenced everyone from the Clash (Joe Strummer even took to calling himself “Woody” for a while as a young man) to Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his one-time cohort Jay Farrar (let’s face it – the best Uncle Tupelo songs are either punked-out nods to Woody Guthrie or campfire ripoffs of him, which is to say that the best Uncle Tupelo songs are fucking awesome) and it’s not that surprising that Summerteeth-era Wilco was so brilliant at setting his words to the right music. Bragg and Tweedy mostly split vocal duties (harmonizing wonderfully on album closer “The Unwelcome Guest”), with 1990s radio staple Natalie Merchant taking the helm on one song (“Birds and Ships”), and all three singers give career best performances – Tweedy’s comes on “California Stars” and we’ll talk about Bragg  a little later because that dude is so well suited to this material that, especially in light of 2009’s lackluster Mr. Love and Justice, he might consider going back to the rest of those thousand complete songs and working his way through them an album at a time.

A couple of references here and there to unions and organizing sound a little dated to twenty-first century ears, but the overall effect of Mermaid Avenue is to bring Guthrie’s sense of community, equality, and justice to a generation of people who probably forgot that Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” (Guthrie, a total badass, penned “This Land” in response to the Irving Berlin-composed “God Bless America”, which he was apparently sick of hearing. Good thing Guthrie died before 9/11 because you couldn’t fart after that day without it sounding like “God Bless America”). “Eisler On the Go” is a moving tribute to Hanns Eisler who was deported from America after being labled the “Karl Marx of music,” which is a pretty retarded accusation when you stop to think about it for even five seconds. Guthrie writes, “I don’t know what I’ll do” when wondering how he’d fare going up against the House Un-American Activities Committee as Eisler did (Eisler’s buddy Bertolt Brecht was supposed to stand before HUAC too, but he never got to read the super-badass speech he wrote that basically told them to go fuck themselves). But Guthrie had a keen sense of humor and a dirty mind too – exhibit A for the prosecution being “Ingrid Bergman” in which Bergman’s beauty causes a volcano to erupt because it’s been waiting “for your hand to touch it’s hardrock.” Subtle, Woody. Subtle. But even if Mermaid Avenue doesn’t send you scrambling to your nearest record store for Guthrie’s records, it will treat you to some damn fine American music.

I don’t think Billy Bragg has ever been in better vocal form than he is on Mermaid Avenue and his awesome baritone injects “Walt Whitman’s Niece” with humor and puts some serious wind under the sails of “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key.” And he fucking nails “Eisler On the Go.” The first time I heard it, before I knew who Eisler was, Billy Bragg’s austere performance had me convinced that Eisler was a friend of Guthrie’s who had died. I’m not ashamed to say I wept. Bragg, whose early solo albums tend to feature just him and a clangy electric guitar, is also served very well by having a full band behind him, especially since that full band is Wilco. “At My Window Sad and Lonely” could have been an outtake from Wilco’s sessions for Summerteeth (the first time I saw Wilco live, after Jay Bennett had left the band, I was delighted that they played both “At My Window” and “California Stars”).

The adept interplay between Billy Bragg and Wilco makes Mermaid Avenue a stellar alt.country/folk/rock record, but what’s remarkable to me about the album is that it’s definitely not greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an album of songs penned by an underrated folk singer and brought to life by an underrated punk/folk singer and an (at the time) underrated American rock band. The combination is a testament to how awesome Guthrie was and how awesome Billy Bragg and Wilco are. That is, it’s precisely as great as the sum of its parts. Because the parts are fucking brilliant. Nora Guthrie published the following words of her dad’s in the liner notes to Mermaid Avenue and I just find them too completely badass to leave out of this post:

“The world is filled with people who are no longer needed – and who try to make slaves of all of us – and they have their music and we have ours – theirs, the wasted songs of a superstitious nightmare- and without their musical and ideological miscarriages to compare our song of freedom to, we’d not have any opposite to compare music with – and like the drifting wind, hitting against no obstacle, we’d never know its speed, its power…”

If you want to know the power of Woody Guthrie’s words, you could do a lot worse than just rereading the above quote. If you want to know the power of great music, I suggest you listen to Mermaid Avenue.

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The Totally Not Brief History of Awesome American Music Pt. 7: Modern Times

Chances are, if you read Bollocks!, you are somewhat aware of American music history through the first part of the 21st century. And if you’re a ten-year-old reading this blog, well, you’ve learned some new words, haven’t you? Anyway, to conclude my less-brief-than-intended history of awesome American music, I’m just gonna sum up the decade in things I think are awesome.

And one thing I think is stupid. In the first part of the decade, Metallica got embroiled in a legal battle with Napster over the peer-to-peer sharing of Metallica’s catalogue of unintentionally hilarious songs about darkness, blackness, death, and so on. That doesn’t bother me one way or the other, but Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s shitty drummer, wrote an editorial for Newsweek in which he stated that Metallica didn’t make music for their fans. This comment has stuck in my craw for the better part of ten years because it smacks of the sort of fuck-you-I’ve-made-my-money ingratitude that deserves repeated face punchings. Ulrich basically said that Metallica doesn’t make music for the people who made them millionaires. Well, Lars, I’ve never really been of the opinion that your band made music at all. Fuck you, sir, and good day.

Wilco did two very awesome things in the last decade that are worth mentioning. First, they turned in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to Reprise, a record label owned by AOL/Time-Warner. The label didn’t hear a single on the album (“Heavy Metal Drummer”, motherfuckers! But also, why would you sign a band like Wilco if you want radio hits?) and rejected it. Wilco left the label and, after streaming the whole thing on their website (for free, Metallica. And they’re poorer than you!) and building some buzz around it, they got snapped up by Nonesuch records and here’s the punchline: Nonesuch is a subsidiary of AOL/Time-Warner. So the Warner Music Group fired and rehired Wilco and looked like complete idiots in the process. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released to well-deserved critical acclaim. The second awesome thing Wilco did this decade has to do with file-sharing. When they were set to release A Ghost is Born, a dude brazenly emailed Jeff Tweedy to make sure he’d downloaded the properly sequenced version of the album. In response to this, rather than getting all litigious, Wilco set up a link to Doctors Without Borders on their website, allowing people to assuage their piratey guilt by donating to charity. They ended up raising a shitload of money for Doctors Without Borders and also issued a statement about how they don’t just exist to make records but to – gasp! – play music for their fans. So to recap, Wilco is awesome and Metallica is pretty much wrong about everything.

The 21st century has been all about revivalism so far, for good and ill. Bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys have done a pretty good job of keeping the blues vital, even while idiots like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and John Mayer seek to destroy them. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have almost single-handedly attempted to rescue soul and R&B music from auto-tuning and over-production, doing for that genre pretty much the exact opposite of what Brian Setzer did for swing in the late 1990s (well, to swing. Rape is something you do to people, not for them). And my beloved Hold Steady have taken classic rock out of your alcoholic stepdad’s hands and put it in the hands of people who read books (some of which don’t even have pictures).

There’s even hope for punk music, Green Day notwithstanding. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, whose Brutalist Bricks may be their best album yet (and that’s saying something) is probably leading the charge, with fellow New Jersey-ites (New Jerseyians? Whatever) Titus Andronicus not far behind him. And the Thermals, who hail from my old stomping ground of Portland, Oregon, have been kicking ass for a few years now too. There’s also The Old Haunts, who should probably make another album now.

I started really paying attention to hip-hop in the last few years, even going back and listening to the old school stuff I’ve mentioned previously. Sage Francis was good when he was with Non-Prophets, and he should go back to that. Atmosphere might be the most bang for your hip-hop buck right now, as their last two albums have been nothing short of stellar. And since we’re talking about Minnesotans, you should know about Brother Ali as well. But if you want your hip-hop shit on the level of Coltrane, consider DOOM (formerly MF Doom) the hip-hop version of Interstellar Space. DOOM’s work is of a consistently higher quality than, well, pretty much everyone else’s. The dude even sampled a Bukowski poem on his last record. Of course, there are a couple of hip-hop producers of note, the two big ones being Madlib and Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse, of course, rose to fame by making the Gray Album, a mashup of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album. Jay-Z got his panties in a twist over it and the album was litigated into its grave. Hey, Jay-Z: what the fuck do you expect people to do when you release an a cappella version of your album? Do you really think people like your voice that much? Asshole. Anyway, Danger Mouse went on to form half of Gnarls Barkley, produce an awesome Black Keys record, and cocreate Dark Night of the Soul with Sparklehorse (the late, totally underrated Mark Linkous).

I want to wrap up by talking about some women who I think are vital to American music right now…

I could have mentioned Ani DiFranco in the 1990s section, but she’s been going strong in the last decade as well, standing out as one of the most fiercely independent artists in American music right now. Dudes who can shed their ego enough to actually listen to her work will find that she writes very compelling songs and is one of the most unique acoustic guitarists I’ve ever heard.

Neko Case, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, is a goddess. End of story. If you’ve read this blog at all and don’t own Middle Cyclone, I don’t really understand your priorities. It’s like you’re striving to make your life less awesome.

I am secure enough in my whatever to admit that I like Alicia Keys, but I will like her a lot better when she fires her current producers, gets a lot more jaded, and becomes our next Aretha Franklin. I’m thinking this could happen by about 2030 (I know what I said about making predictions, but I reserve the right to contradict myself).

Bettye LaVette has been one of  the best-kept secrets in American music, and that’s really too bad. As a younger woman, she toured with Otis Redding. Later, she did a stint on Broadway with Cab Calloway. Her first full-length album, Child of the Seventies was inexplicably shelved by Atlantic records until 2000, when Gilles Petard released it as Souvenirs on his Art and Soul label. Eventually, LaVette was picked up by Anti-, the label that puts out Neko Case and Tom Waits records (that’s one helluva roster) and released I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise in 2005. Since then, she’s enjoyed some renewed and deserved interest. I’ll be reviewing her album of British songs later this year.

So that’s pretty much everything I could think of to tell you about awesome American music. I know I missed some stuff and I know I deliberately skipped some stuff, but so be it. I’m compiling a page of essential American tracks that should be up soon, so you can look for that if you want. In the meantime, though, don’t be a musical xenophobe. There’s amazing music all over the world and you’ll probably like some of it if you give it a shot. Some time in the future, I’ll get back to regular reviews, but I’m getting married in 30 days and that’s gonna have an effect on the ol’ updating schedule. We’ll be in touch.

Wilco (The Album) and a Mixed Bag of Sports Metaphors

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Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it’s 2002 and your band records one of the best albums of this decade (which means, at this point in time, you would be in the running for one of the best albums of the century and millennium so far – nice work). Your label rejects it, you tell them to get fucked, they drop you, and a few months later, one of their subsidiaries picks you up and releases your album to widespread critical acclaim. Your album helps me through a romantic rocky patch in my life and, along with the album you made before that and everything Tom Waits has ever done, your new album is part of a little musical cavern into which I would periodically crawl to lick my emotional wounds.

Congratulations, you’re Wilco, and the album in question is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Well done. Now let’s say you’re reading a Bollocks! review in 2009 and I’m talking about the new Wilco album, conveniently named Wilco (The Album). It’s easy to say that because – surprise! – that’s exactly what’s happening right now.

Wilco has entered what I’ll call the Can’t Win phase of their career. Since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco’s been trapped in a critical Catch-22 by people who thought YHF was an “experimental” masterpiece (masterpiece, yes, but it’s basically a Beatles album). They wanted more of that, please and thank you, but when Jeff Tweedy cranked up the guitars on A Ghost is Born, the critical panties grew a bit bunched. Not guitars, they said. They wanted blips and bleeps. So when Wilco released Sky Blue Sky, admittedly a great grower album (I owned it for a year before I realized, on a lazy drive back from the Bay Area, that it’s a gorgeous album in its own quiet way), the critics brought out the big guns – “dad rock,” they called it. How dare Wilco try to make 70s rock records? Those don’t have our beloved bleeps and blips. So now we have Wilco (The Album) and the critics seem to want to like it, though Pitchfork said it lacked the audacity of their other records (A.M. and Sky Blue Sky don’t strike me as particularly audacious, but maybe that’s because I know what “audacious” means. Of course, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was their most audacious album, but that’s because everyone thought they were a country-rock band and they wanted to be an awesome-rock band. Point goes to Wilco on that one) and the Onion A.V. Club dropped this critical turd nugget on the band, saying they’re capable of So Much More. They didn’t say what, exactly, that meant, which is irritating to me. I don’t know if I’ve ever used that phrase in a Bollocks! review, but if I do in the future, please call me on it. It’s lazy to say something like that without qualifying it. Saying a band is capable of So Much More isn’t saying you don’t like them – I don’t think you need to give a reason for simply not liking something (some people think you do, and I say “Fuck you” is reason enough. Sometimes you just know you don’t like something), but if you say a band is capable of more than what they’ve done on a given record, you’re implying knowledge of something they could’ve done and didn’t do. You fucking know-it-all.

Now, when I listen to an album, my primary concern is: does it consist of good songs? Wilco (The Album) consists not only of some good tunes but a few great ones. It’s a melting pot of everywhere Wilco has musically been in their career; “You Never Know” is worthy of Being There, “Sonny Feeling,” sounds like Summerteeth, “Country Disappeared” and “Deeper Down,” wouldn’t be out of place on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Maybe that’s the problem the critics have with Wilco (The Album), but I look it more like so: Wilco is capable of doing pretty much anything at this point and, with Wilco (The Album), they do a little of everything. And it sounds great. The more I listen to this album, the more I like it.

It opens, naturally, with “Wilco (The Song)” which is a literal love letter to the listener (“a sonic shoulder for your to cry on,” Tweedy sings before adding, in case you were unsure, that “Wilco will love you, baby”) and is one of the catchiest tunes Wilco has done since “The Late Greats.” “Wilco (The Song)” is followed by one of the two most beautiful tracks on the album, “Deeper Down,” (the song features a reference to triremes – you don’t hear a lot of people singing about Greco-Roman warships much these days. And, for all you critics out there, they didn’t fucking do that on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). The other super-beautiful track, perhaps the most beautiful on the album, is “Country Disappeared,” an  aching tune that has Tweedy singing, “every evening/ we can watch from above/ crushed cities like a bug”, describing the televised destruction of a once-great nation.

In 2006, I was discussing The Flaming Lips’ At War with the Mystics and I pointed out that the Lips got unfairly shit on for that record because their previous two albums were home runs and suddenly everyone was mad that they hit a triple. Most bands, it should be noted, don’t make it to first base much (for instance, bands like Nickelback dive in front of a pitch to get on base. You get the idea). I feel the same way about Wilco (The Album). Wilco has hit a couple of big home-runs in their career (their names are Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), and they usually manage at least a ground-rule double (I’ll quit with the baseball metaphors in a minute – I am talking about baseball, right?). Oh, and let’s not forget their 10th inning, 2 guys out, buzzer-beating grand slam collaboration with Billy Bragg, Mermaid Avenue.

Sure, Wilco (The Album) isn’t perfect, but perfect albums are hard to come by. Sgt. Pepper’s is perfect, London Calling is perfect, Ziggy Stardust is perfect – you see how stiff the competition is there. But who cares? I don’t only listen to perfect albums. YHF might be perfect (hell, I’m not finding much wrong on Summerteeth either) or it might not, but with Wilco (The Album), Jeff Tweedy and company have most certainly punted a double-bogie hat trick right over the net and out of the fucking park.