The teaming of alternative country band Wilco and British folk singer Billy Bragg spawned one of 1998's most critically acclaimed albums, "Mermaid Avenue." The disc was an ode of sorts to salt-of-the-earth folk artist Woody Guthrie--Wilco and Bragg writing music to accompany never-before-recorded lyrics by the late protest singer. But "Mermaid II" is less a tribute to Guthrie or our vanishing past than a testament to how much things haven't changed.
The midcentury lyrics are eerily relevant on songs such as "Feed the Man." Here Wilco's humming organ and reverberating guitar back singer Jeff Tweedy as he brings Guthrie's commentary on the rat race to life: "I'll help you fix and squeeze yourself up a new kind of God, one that tells you fertilize and multiply, outsow and outblow, outplant and outgrow, outdo and outrun." Though Guthrie wrote this decades before the advent of Nasdaq-made millionaires, it feels like a direct re-buttal to our bloated, greedy times. Bragg's numbers are more earnest and stark in contrast: his throaty brogue makes the grim tale of a porter at the fleabag "Hot Rod Hotel" so vivid you feel a swell of vindication when he finally lays his polish rag and dustpan down for good. "Mermaid" could easily be handled in too precious a manner, but Wilco and Bragg simply connect the dots between today's mad world and a not-so-distant past, treating Guthrie's songs with the reverence of scrappy contemporaries rather than preservationists of quaint Americana.Billy Brag & Wilco'Mermaid Avenue Vol. II'