Initial Reactions (2012): Mermaid Avenue III, M. Ward, Sara Watkins

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an initial impression on me, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

Billy Bragg/Wilco – Mermaid Avenue III [B]: One last round for old times’ sake. Though not as great as the first, it beats the second for sure. The Tweedy-led tracks are real treats, reminiscent of the YHF demos. A few cuts could’ve used more work; otherwise, a delicious slice of dessert from one of the most fruitful experiments in rock and roll history. ("When the Roses Bloom Again", "Listening to the Wind That Blows")

M. Ward – Wasteland Companion [B+]: That distinctive voice inhabiting simple acoustic songs. Folk-ish with experimental tinges, i.e. the creepy howls of a desolate landscape in the title track, putting the emphasis on Ward’s mellow side. All in all, a strong record, one I’ll keep in rotation, and who knows what insights a few more spins might bring. Invites you to wander cautiously through the desolation.  ("The First Time I Ran Away", "A Wasteland Companion")

Sara Watkins – Sun Midnight Sun [A]: Well here’s a surprise. The opener’s distorted, hyperkinetic fiddling signals a musical shift, and gorgeous tunes get dressed up to launch this into ‘A’ territory. The centerpiece is the harrowing kiss-off "When It Pleases You.” Intense, beautiful, edgy, gorgeous, imaginative, interesting, and a major leap forward for a promising artist. In short, it’s everything I love about music. ("When It Pleases You", "Lock and Key")

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Quick Review (LP): Mermaid Avenue II by Wilco (+ Billy Bragg)

Wilco (+ Billy Bragg)
Mermaid Avenue II
Elektra; 2000

My Rating: C (54/100)

Best Tracks: "Airline to Heaven", "Secret of the Sea", "Remember the Mountain Bed", "Aginst th’ Law", "I Was Born"

TRACK NOTES

"Airline to Heaven" (4.5/5)

  • Love the hoedown rhythm.
  • The direction this tune takes is pretty genius. Sounds like it could’ve been an Uncle Tupelo cut.

"My Flying Saucer" (4/5)

  • Cute n’ catchy.

"Feed of Man" (3.5/5)

  • Sort of menacing, but ultimately forgettable.
  • Tweedy should stick to the pretty stuff.

"Hot Rod Hotel" (3.5/5)

  • Woody’s lyrics are pretty great, but musically this is below average.

"I Was Born" (4/5)

  • Another cutey.
  • I was never a 10,000 Maniacs fan, but Natalie Merchant’s super-pure voice really works well with Woody’s lyrics and BB’s tunes.

"Secret of the Sea" (5/5)

  • LOVE this one.
  • Power pop brilliance. (Must be Jay B’s tune
  • "Who can guess the secret of the sea/If you can guess the secret of my love for you/Then we both could know/The secret of the sea…"

"Stetson Kennedy" (3/5)

  • Meh…
  • Sort of sounds like something I’d hear in the background on Bourbon Street.

"Remember the Mountain Bed" (5/5)

  • While Bragg gets the upper hand in terms of authenticity, Tweedy wins in terms of gorgeous melodies. Witness this.
  • Reminds me of the lovelorn nostalgia of "One by One.
  • Great lyrics here.

"Blood of the Lamb" (3/5)

  • Shoots for significance, hits on dull.

"Aginst th’ Law" (4.5/5)

  • Yessir, it is.
  • Why Winston-Salem?
  • Catchy as heck. Fun. Great performance by Corey Harris.

"All You Fascists" (3/5)

  • Yeah, Woody didn’t like Fascists either.
  • Exceedingly average.

"Joe Dimaggio’s Done It Again" (3.5/5)

  • I know it’s Woody’s work and all, but this sounds a bit out of place coming from Tweedy.

"Meanest Man" (3.5/5)

  • Instrumentally compelling.
  • Vocally, decent.
  • In terms of the songwriting, blah.

"Black Wind Blowing" (4/5)

  • Haunting.
  • Picture listening to this one while a storm is rolling in on the prairie.

"Someday Some Morning Sometime" (3.5/5)

  • Feels like it could have been a bit more…

ALBUM NOTES

  • Well, they saved most of the winners for the first volume. "Secret of the Sea" is essentially perfect, a Wilco power-pop wonder. Otherwise, there’s not a whole lot that detonates.
  • I wonder if they’ve ever given thought to continuing this series?
  • There’s a good documentary about the recording sessions called Man In The Sand. You can watch it on Netflix instant (or, you know, buy it or something).
  • Now that Wilco’s done this for two albums, it would be interesting to hear Jay Farrar/Son Volt give it a shot. After all, JF has always seemed to exude the blue collar heart.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (3.5/5)
Consistency (2.5/5)
Songs (3.83/5)

Quick Review (LP): Mermaid Avenue I by Wilco (+ Billy Bragg)

Wilco (+ Billy Bragg)
Mermaid Avenue I
Elektra; 1998

My Rating: A- (82/100)

Best Tracks: “Walt Whitman’s Niece”, “California Stars”, “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”, “Birds and Ships”, “At My Window Sad and Lonely”, “Hesitating Beauty”

Waking the dead: questionable alt-country concept goes right.

TRACK NOTES

"Walt Whitman’s Niece" (4.5/5)

  • Raucous and joyful.
  • Love the bar room sing a long.
  • “Last night or the night before that/I’ll not say which night…”

"California Stars" (5/5)

  • Classic.
  • Brilliant.
  • You can just hear Woody’s soul coming through in the lyrics here.
  • Always thought the lyrics had a sarcastic edge to them though.
  • By the way, newbies, this is alt-country. Now go lay down in an open field on a clear summer night and take in the cosmos.

"Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" (5/5)

  • So beautiful.
  • Natalie Merchant’s vocals are key here.
  • Great fiddle work.

"Birds and Ships" (5/5)

  • This is just one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.
  • Nobody could’ve done it like Natalie.

"Hoodoo Voodoo" (4.5/5)

  • I’m pretty sure this is the riff from "Lady Madonna." But that’s OK. This tune still rules.
  • So goofy, so fun.
  • Great performance by the band. It’s all about the cowbell.

"She Came Along To Me" (4/5)

  • "The women are equal/And they may be ahead of the men"
  • Nice slide riff.
  • Pretty cool tune, though it could’ve used a stronger hook.

"At My Window Sad and Lonely" (4.5/5)

  • Another gorgeous tear-jerker.
  • You can hear a lot of Bennett’s influence on this one.

"Ingrid Bergman" (3.5/5)

  • Woody think Ingrid Bergman pretty.
  • WG missed his calling as a copywriter for Viagra.

"Christ for President" (2/5)

  • Dumb.
  • Stupid.
  • Er, worthless.
  • All of the above.

"I Guess I Planted" (3.5/5)

  • Forgettable.
  • Still, there’s sort of a swagger, and a bit of catchy melody.

"One By One" (5/5)

  • Another beautiful track with Tweedy at the front.
  • Really wondrous. This is a "soul shining" type of track. Just gorgeous.

"Eisler on the Go" (4.5/5)

  • The Eisler story is here.
  • Good Bragg track. 
  • Very evocative. The tune matches the lyrics well. A bit despondent.

"Hesitating Beauty" (4.5/5)

  • Great lyrics, great tune.
  • I love this one. Classic Wilco.

"Another Man’s Done Gone" (4.5/5)

  • Grand piano and Tweedy go really well together. See "Venus Stopped the Train" or "Cars Can’t Escape." He should do it more often.
  • Doesn’t sound like a Guthrie tune here, but I ain’t complaining.
  • Muy bueno.

"The Unwelcome Guest" (4.5/5)

  • The boys ride off into the sunset on this one. Nice touch.

ALBUM NOTES

  • Well, this isn’t exactly a Wilco album, since Billy Bragg composed about half of the tunes, and the lyrics are all the doing of Woody Guthrie. What would Wilco be, however, without classics like "California Stars", "At My Window Sad and Lonely", and "One By One" in their repertoire? There is plenty of essential Wilco here, and quite honestly, this album as a whole is simply wonderful.
  • In terms of consequence, Mermaid Avenue wins on 2 levels. First of all, it cemented Wilco as alt-country heroes following Being There just in time for them to start getting all experimental. Second of all, it confirmed the continuity of the non-Nashville country sound with old school Americana.
  • All in all, it’s not perfect, but it’s excellent. If they’d trimmed some of the fat here and added a few of the choice cuts from Volume 2 ("Airline to Heaven", "Secret of the Sea") they might have had a masterpiece. Still, I’m not complaining one bit.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4.5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4.3/5)