Billy Bragg & Wilco
Mermaid Avenue Volume II
On 1998’s Mermaid Avenue, British punk-folk singer Billy Bragg joined forces with roots rockers Wilco to put music to some of Woody Guthrie’s unheard lyrics and in the process revealed many new sides to the highly influential political folk singer and working class defender. That record contained the lusty double entendres of “Ingrid Bergman,” the playful children’s song “Hoodoo Voodoo,” and the nice love song “California Stars.” Volume One was a big critical success and earned a Grammy nomination.
Now combining some of the leftover songs from the original Volume One sessions and some newly recorded tracks, Volume Two is the sound of Billy Bragg and Wilco cutting loose. Because while Volume One was remarkably revelatory, it was also a tad reverential and consistent in tone. Here, the sonic palette is broader and reflects more the individual styles of Bragg and Wilco.
The difference is evident early on. The opening “Airline to Heaven” is sung in a Dylan-esque voice by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy over a repeating acoustic guitar figure. Bragg follows that with “My Flying Saucer,” a fun, Buddy Holly-like number.
Elsewhere, Wilco revisits both the blues-y strung out rock style of their 1996 album Being There (“Feed of Man”) and the pop sound of tracks like “I’m Always In Love” from last year’s Summer Teeth (“Secret of the Sea”). The latter song may be one of the best this partnership has produced, and is full of interesting melodic and musical turns. Equally strong is the beautiful, six minutes plus ballad “Remember the Mountain Bed.” It features acoustic guitar, tack piano, organ and echoey drums that recall Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.” Wilco’s other contributions include the carnival keyboard hymn “Blood of the Lamb” and the dreamy, tinkling piano and vibes ballad “Someday Some Morning Sometime.” They also provide this edition’s period pop culture exercise “Joe DiMaggio Done It Again,” a slightly repetitive, banjo twanger.
While Wilco focuses mostly on love songs, Bragg sticks mostly to narratives like “Hot Rod Hotel,” about a job from hell, and political rave-ups like the punky “All You Fascists.” He also constructs a bluesy, Tom Waits-like freakout on “Meanest Man,” and provides a musical cousin to Volume One’s “Eisler On the Go” with “Black Wind Blowing.”
Mermaid Avenue Volume II is one sequel that lives up to — and in some ways, surpasses — the original.
Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019