Wilco: Mermaid Avenue Volumes I & II

billy_bragg_mermaid_avenueYou know Woody Guthrie – countercultural icon and arguably the way we got Bob Dylan and every form of pop music that has descended from him. Well, before he died, Woody wrote a whole mess of lyrics that he never got the chance to “musicize.” That’s right, “musicize.” It has to be a real word, but if not, I will offer the first official defintion: to transform a thing or things into music.

Well, back in the late 90’s, one of the old Wood-meister’s descendants, Nora Guthrie, decided that these old lyrics were so good that they deserved to be “musicized.” Don’t know if she considered having Woody’s boy Arlo do it, but for whatever reason, she ended up choosing England’s own Billy Bragg and America’s own Wilco to get the job done right.

You’ll notice from listening to these three records that there appear to be three “musicization” approaches employeed. The first method was to musicize it to sound like Woody actually wrote the tune. The second was to write a more modern tune to accompany Guthrie’s lyrics. The third was to create a synthesis, oftentimes resulting in something completely off-the-wall, other times resulting in something heartbreakingly wonderful.

mermaid2As for the first approach, you’ll find “Walt Whitman’s Niece,” “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” “I Was Born,” and “Ingrid Berman.” There is varying success with this approach. “Whitman” and “Yonder” are both magnificent, but “Ingrid Berman” is just a bit flat. Elsewhere, Jeff Tweedy’s “Remember the Mountain Bed” is gorgeous, perhaps a bit more earnest and long in the verse than Guthrie would have done, but the folk spirit is fully intact, and the melody is sublime.

For the second approach, you get iconic Wilco tune “California Stars” and the fabulous power pop of “Secret of the Sea.” Simliarly, “At My Window Sad and Lonely” plays on Big Star sensibilites with great results. Bragg’s “I Guess I Planted” goes for the shipyard-blues sound, and doesn’t quite register the impact of Wilco’s “second approach” contributions. But Bragg’s “Eisler on the Go” is wonderfully haunting, and  Wilco hits a homer with “Hesitating Beauty” and “One by One.”


For the third approach, you get the best tracks between the two records. “Birds and Ships,” marvelously handled by angel-voiced Natalie Merchant, is the kind of thing that can reduce a grown man to tears, as the lonely acoustic guitar moves along at mournful pace. “Hoodoo Voodoo” adds a wonderful goofy touch to the proceedings, and “Airline to Heaven” is one of the coolest tracks Wilco ever recorded, somehow encompassing about five different genres into one mind-altering track.

So of 30 tracks between the two volumes, about two-thirds register above sea level on. Of those, there are quite a few great tracks to be had. If I had to condense the two volumes into one essential volume, it would consist of the following tracks:

1. Walt Whitman’s Niece
2. California Stars
3. Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key
4. Birds and Ships
5. Hoodoo Voodoo
6. At My Window Sad And Lonely
7. One By One2000guthrie
8. Eisler on the Go
9. Hesitating Beauty
10. Another Man’s Done Gone
11. The Unwelcome Guest
12. Airline to Heaven
13. I Was Born
14. Secret of the Sea
15. Remember the Mountain Bed

There’s a winning combination. It’s not that the other tracks are bad, but they are forgettable or obnoxious. These fifteen, though, represent one heckuva great job of “musicizing” lyrics. All in all, an extremely notable event in the career of Wilco. Don’t pass up on these tracks!

What tracks does your “one-volume” Mermaid Avenue consist of?

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