Bob Dylan and the Band – Before the Flood

Here’s another old album review from the dark, dark ages of 2004.

Before the Flood is a collection of cuts from a 1974 tour that Bob Dylan and the Band–both coming off mediocre albums–put on to recapture their audience’s attention. And damn did it ever work.

The Dylan cuts here seem as if they were performed by a man and a band possessed. He tears through familiar tunes in new arrangements and new settings, completely altering familiar songs until they were barely recognizable. And the songs that were recognizable were still so different and alien, the audience barely knew how to react.

That being said, the reinterpretations are phenomenal. Dylan has always made an effort to defy his audience’s expectations, and by the mid-’70s, they’d finally come to appreciate this fact and to embrace it. The roar of the crowd on the double album makes it clear that Dylan’s fans still love him and his music, however he may twist it and change it.

The Band’s tunes, which mostly appear in the middle of the set, are a brief respite from the storm. There are no surprises here–The Band play things pretty straight, giving close reads of some of their best-known tunes, including “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” and “Stage Fright” on disc one, and “The Weight” on disc two. This straight-forward work by The Band on their original tunes actually works to the album’s advantage, though, as it provides a baseline against which to compare and interpret Dylan’s radical reworkings.

Dylan’s song selection stuck mostly to older, more established tunes from his first six or seven albums. Tunes such as “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Blowing in the Wind” (the album’s closer, in a very different version from the original solo acoustic), and numerous others seemed obvious and well-loved choices, but some of the tunes Dylan played were outside of expectations. Including “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Highway 61 Revisited” from Highway 61 Revisited, and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (played by Dylan solo acoustic at a breakneck speed) kept things even more varied and unpredictable.

Before the Flood captures Dylan and The Band at a performance ability peak, and presents them as a force of nature that tore through songs, the audience, and expectations. The results are phenomenal and worth listening to, and the album rivals any of the recent excellent Bootleg Series live shows. The record is a must-have for anyone who values the work of Dylan or The Band.

Bob Dylan – Tempest

I am, as even a cursory glance at this blog will readily prove, a pretty damn big Dylan fan. And when I heard he was putting out another album, I was – as is to be expected – pretty damn excited. And honestly, the album is pretty great. It’s got some solid songs on it, Dylan’s voice is in fine (albeit raspy, gravely) form, and I enjoyed it from beginning until almost the end. But…

Well, it doesn’t honestly grab me, y’know? Usually, with a Dylan album, I want to start it over again right after it finishes. That…didn’t happen here. This is an excellent album, but it’s an album I feel like I’ve already heard three times before.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of great stuff to be mined from the styles Dylan’s been working in since Love and Theft (still my favorite Dylan record of the past thirty years), but it feels like the always-restless Dylan is just spinning his wheels here. Dylan and his band still do their thing with skill and even finesse, but there’s nothing here he hasn’t already done before. There are no surprises, no sudden detours in an unexpected direction (either lyrically or sonically), and honestly, it’s just not what I was hoping for.

The positive side, though, is that if you haven’t heard anything by Dylan in the past ten or twelve years, this album will feel pretty fresh to you. And really, the songs are generally quite good. Things start off well with “Duquesne Whistle,” an old-fashioned train song done in an old fashioned style. The subtle steel guitar work is reminiscent of Hank Williams, Sr., which is never a bad thing. “Early Roman Kings” borrows the riff from “Mannish Boy,” but does it on accordion (which isn’t a surprise at all if you’ve heard Together Through Life, but it fits as though there’s never been any other way to play it). “Pay In Blood” is one of Dylan’s darker comic songs, featuring the recurring line “I’ve paid in blood, but it’s not my own.” Other songs, such as “Soon After Midnight” and “Narrow Way,” work very well, and the first half of the album is pretty fantastic.

The second half, though, is bogged down by the last two tracks: the sprawling, lethargic title track, a story song about the sinking of the Titanic that does nothing new or interesting with the topic, and the album’s closer, “Roll on John,” a tribute to John Lennon that borrows lyrics from several of Lennon’s own songs and feels about thirty years too late. They’re both duds, falling quite flat, and they bring the end of the record down considerably.

Ultimately, Tempest isn’t going to win any new converts to the Cult of Dylan. It’s good, but there’s really nothing to distinguish it from the three albums that came before. While I can’t fault Dylan for pursuing the styles and themes he wants to (it’s led to same damn fine music over the years), I’m starting to have a tough time following him down the path.

Delayed Reaction: Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill and the Posthumous Album Curse

I came to Elliott Smith a little late in the game: after his success had already led to major label records, before his untimely death. Like so many others, my introduction to his work was Either/Or, still one of the single best records ever (admittedly, I would also say the same about XO and probably Figure 8). I was upset when I learned about Smith’s death, because it meant we wouldn’t be getting anymore albums from him.

Then they announced From a Basement on the Hill, and I was both excited and very, very nervous.

See, I think there’s something definitely dangerous about the posthumous album. Releasing an unfinished record after the artist’s death is, at best, a gamble, and at worst a crass cash grab. Hell, Tupac’s released more albums since he died than he did when he was still alive. Unfinished work either ends up sounding like exactly that (unfinished, skeletal demos) or some sort of elegiac, overproduced thing that tries to cover up the fact that there wasn’t more than a verse and a half and most of a chorus put together before the guy died.

So I was worried about Basement, and I’ll admit that for the longest time, I did not care for the record. I ranked it down at the bottom of Smith’s catalog. Compared to any other album in his oeuvre (yeah, that’s right, I’m bustin’ out the French), it just didn’t fit. Bits of it were rough and ramshackle, while other parts felt overproduced, and the whole thing felt completely unlike any other Elliott Smith album. It didn’t feel like it was his. The fact that there was a fair amount of controversy over the production and mastering of the album when it came out only served to confirm my fears.

But today, I decided to give it a second chance. It was, after all, a collection of songs written by Elliott Smith, so there had to be something worthwhile in there. And I was surprised to discover that, in fact, while there are a couple of odd missteps, this is actually an album that fits in with his catalog and manages to almost synthesize all the different stages of his career.

The album opens with the atypical rocker “Coast to Coast,” a song that doesn’t have a comparison in the rest of his solo work. With the heavily distorted drums and grungy guitar, it sounds more like an outtake from his previous band, Heatmiser. However, it quickly bounces to more familiar territory, with the softly-plucked acoustic and multi-tracked vocals of “Let’s Get Lost” and the fuller sound of “Pretty (Ugly Before),” which would have felt of a piece with Figure 8.

What’s particularly interesting about the album is that it feels rather like Smith’s attempt to synthesize the Beatles’ Revolver into his own work. Not that this record sounds anything like Revolver, just that the guitars in several places bear a striking resemblance in tone and style to the guitar work on Revolver. It does feel like Smith is also attempting to push the boundaries of his style the way the Beatles did on Revolver.

I do think that this album is still the weakest of Elliott Smith’s career. The songs just don’t feel as complete or as tightly-plotted as on his other records. The lyrics aren’t as sharp, and feel too much like retreads of topics and themes he’s already addressed in other songs to better effect. It is by no means a bad record, just not as great as his other stuff. I’ve reconciled myself to this being the final Elliott Smith album (even if not the final collection of Elliott Smith recordings, as the wonderful 2006 collection of odds and sods, New Moon, proved). While not the best album of his all-too-short career, it’s still worth a listen.

Top 5 Desert Island Discs

It’s a question that’s been asked since we first figured out how to record sound onto physical media for later playback: if you were stranded on a desert island and could only have five albums to listen to for the rest of your life, what would they be?

Now, admittedly, in the age of the iPod and cloud-based computing, this is maybe a slightly less relevant question than it once was. However, it’s still a fun exercise, and one I have given much thought to over the past few days. It doesn’t hurt that I watched High Fidelity Friday night.

Anyway, my top five, desert island discs are, in no particular order:

"And no one is ever gonna change my life for me/I lay it down/A ghost is born, a ghost is born, a ghost is born"1. Wilco, A Ghost is Born: This may not be the best Wilco album (an honor that still goes to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or maybe SummerTeeth), but it’s my favorite. It’s one of those records I can listen to over and over and never get tired of it (well, except for maybe “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “Less Than You Think”). Plus, every time I hear that record, I hear something new in the songs. That’s something worth taking to a desert island.

"Hey, ho, rock 'n' roll/Deliver me from nowhere!"2. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska: Atypical of the Boss’s albums in terms of style and arrangement, but Nebraska is (I think) the essence of Springsteen’s songwriting boiled down and stripped of all unnecessary elements. It’s just his voice, his guitar, and occasionally a harmonica. It’s just the bare soul of the songs, and you really connect with the tunes on this album in a way you can’t with some of his more elaborate, bombastic stuff with the E Street Band. I know folks toss around words like “haunting” a lot for records like this, but it’s applicable. And it’s not like there’s a single bad song on the record, either: “Atlantic City” is a fatalistic yet somehow still optimistic look at struggling through a rough economy, “Open All Night” is a fun, goofy rockabilly number, and “Reason to Believe” is at times warm, at times sad, and at times jubilant. This is Bruce’s best storytelling album, hands down.

"Why, tell me why, did you not treat me right?/Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight."3. The Beatles, Rubber Soul: It’s hard not to just pick all Beatles albums for this (and even then, it’s hard to just pick five), but if I had to narrow it down to a single Beatles record for the rest of my days, it’d probably have to be this one. It’s the Beatles at the peak of their early career, transitioning into the headier themes of the second half of their arc. You start to get a bit of the experimentation that was to come (“Norwegian Wood” and its sitar, for instance), but you still have just really well-crafted, fun pop songs, too. I think I’d have to have the version of the album with the false start on “I’m Looking Through You,” just because it’s always interesting to think of the Beatles as fallible.

"And that wasn't the opening line/It was the tenth or the twelfth/Make of that what you will."4. AC Newman, Get Guilty: I would listen to this guy sing the phonebook, I think, because he just writes such damn catchy songs. This would be the album I’d have to spin to remind myself that, while I might be stuck on a desert island, life is still pretty damn good. Also, maybe I could finally take the time to figure out what the hell it is, exactly, that he’s singing about. It’s the newest album in this group, admittedly, but it’s one that I listened to a dozen or so times in the first few months that I had it, and I never seem to get tired of songs like “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer” or “Elemental.” Alternately, I could swipe this out for the New Pornographer’s Twin Cinema, which is essentially more AC Newman goodness with Neko Case singing a bunch (and that’s always awesome).

"I started out on burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff/Everybody said they'd stand behind me when the game got rough."5. Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited: Selecting a single Dylan album to take is, much like the case with the Beatles, very difficult. But if you have to go with just one, this is the album to go with. From the pistolshot crack of that first snare on “Like a Rolling Stone” to the honky tonk piano of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and the wailing harmonica outro on the epic “Desolation Row,” it’s an album unlike anything else in his catalog, and there’s just not a bad song on it (well, maybe “Queen Jane Approximately,” but that’s less bad and more just kinda boring). Plus, I’d have that police whistle thing from the title track to keep me company on those lonely nights on the island.

It’s hard making a list like this. On another day, it might’ve included Van Morrison’s Moondance (or Tupelo Honey), or the Avett Brothers’ Emotionalism, or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedos! (yes, the exclamation mark is necessary and part of the title), or Pink Floyd’s Meddle, or…well, you get the idea. This isn’t easy.

But, dear reader, what would your top 5 desert island discs be? Let me know in the comments section!

The Minus 5 – Down With Wilco

Yet another of my old album reviews, this time for a Minus 5 record. Man, I need to go listen to this one again.

I bought this CD expecting it to be, essentially, a Wilco album with a couple of extra guys involved. In that respect, I was sorely disappointed–this is not a Wilco album, it’s a Minus 5 album on which Wilco play most of the instruments. But that’s not a bad thing, I discovered, because the Minus 5’s Down With Wilco is an album of many pleasures in its own right.

Sonically, the best way to describe Minus 5 is that they’re a hybrid of the Beach Boys, Village Green Preservation Society-era Kinks, the Byrds, and Neil Young. The melodies are lilting and infectious, the guitars range from gently-strummed acoustics to chimming twelve strings and Neil Young-esque electrics, and the harmonies sound very much as though the head of this project (a man named Scott McCaughey) has a huge Beach Boy fetish.

And he does–several of the songs display a Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson type of arrangement, utilizing Wilson’s modular techniques and a wide range of instrumentation. Wilco provides most of the musicians for the set, but they tend to accommodate rather than forcing him and Peter Buck (of REM, who is also a key figure in this project. A few words about the “group”–it’s the side project of Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck, and they just have a rotating cast of supporting musicians. This time around, they hooked up with Wilco) to bend to their sound.

The most entertaining aspect of this record is the loose, free feeling of the music. Everything is tongue-in-cheek, everyone is wearing a smile while they play. You can hear it. There’s a feeling of whimsy and playfulness in this record that’s usually missing from Wilco’s very serious albums. While Wilco is still a great band (and one of my current favorites, as I might’ve mentioned), they don’t often crack smiles.

All of the tracks on this collection are winners. The opener, “The Days of Wine and Booze,” is an ode to loss and regret, a commitment to remember the old times, whether they were good or bad. “Retrieval of You” is a fairly straightforward song on paper–a man who lost the woman he loves because she became a pop star. But with its jaunty tune and laugh-out-loud funny lyrics (“They call me DJ Minimart, ’cause that’s where I work”), it rises above its basic premise. “The Town that Lost its Groove Supply” tells you everything you need to know in the title–witty, humorous, bouncy, and just plain fun. “I’m Not Bitter,” the most Wilco-sounding track on the collection, has a chanted call-and-response chorus of the phrase “I’m not bitter” over and over again, as though the narrator were trying to convince himself or his audience (you’re never sure which). The album closes with “Dear Employer (The Reason I Quit),” a Dear John letter to one’s place of employment that is both humorous and bittersweet.

But really, there’s not a bad song on the album. McCaughey is an excellent lyricist, and Wilco rises to the occasion musically and vocally. Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s frontman, doesn’t take lead vocal duties often (only once exclusively, on “Family Gardener”), but provides excellent backing and harmony vocals throughout to McCaughey’s lead vocals.

Overall, the Minus 5’s Down With Wilco is an excellent, well-crafted album that takes a familiar band and casts them in a slightly different light. The result is one of the more enjoyable and cohesive albums I’ve listened to in a long time, and that’s saying something for a side project.

George Harrison – All Things Must Pass

George Harrison was always known as “the quiet Beatle.” You had John, the outspoken, brash, social commentating wise-guy; Paul was the cute one, the one with the cherub cheeks and the delicious understanding of pop melodies; Ringo was the drummer, a nice guy, the one with the big nose; George was the quiet one. He was the weird one, the one who dabbled in Eastern music and Eastern philosophy. A hell of a guitar player. John and Paul would occasionally toss him a bone and let him have a song or two per album, but that was about it.

You could see towards the end of the Beatles’ career that George was starting to come into himself as a songwriter. His two contributions to Abbey Road, “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” are among the most-loved and best songs of the entire Beatles catalog. There were hints that George had more, much more, to say, and only needed the space and the opportunity to say it.

Well, he got the chance on All Things Must Pass, a triple-album chock-full of all the pent-up frustration George felt in those closing years with the Beatles. And damn if it didn’t make for some of the absolute best music ever.

The CD reissue of George’s opus retains all the original stuff from those three records, plus it throws in a handful of demo cuts and a new recording of one of the album’s key tracks, “My Sweet Lord.” And thanks to CD technology, you get it all on a very managable two CDs rather than three cumbersome vinyl records (though there is something to be said for the old records…I mean, c’mon, this stuff is what vinyl was made for).

To be blunt, there’s really not a bad cut on this set. The jams that made up the third record (the last about four or five tracks on disc 2 of the CD collection) are a little unnecessary, but you do get a sneak peak at the creation of one of the best groups ever, Derek and the Dominoes (the future members of that band all appear on this record, and all are involved in the jams. You kinda get a feeling for the direction Derek and the Dominoes would later take, which is neat). But the rest of the album is top-notch, proving that George could be every bit as inspired and prolific as Lennon and McCartney.

First, the music–George utilized Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” technique in recording this album, which means everything sounds big and full and lush. George brought in more musicians than you can shake a stick at (most of whom went uncredited, though some–like Eric Clapton–went uncredited due to record label issues). There are several tracks where you have a half dozen different guitars being played all at once, and each one is strumming a slightly different pattern, and it all just fits together. This record sounds big, sounds like it’s making a statement, and that’s exactly what it does.

Every song on here is good, which is impressive not only for an album of this size and scope, but for a solo project (though the inclusion of two different versions of “Isn’t it a Pity” seems a little unnecessary. Admittedly, it’s a great song with a beautiful melody, and the two different versions have enough variation that you don’t mind hearing it twice, so it’s okay). Most of these are originals (with the exception of a smooth cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You,” a song which George helped Dylan come up with anyway, and the opener, “I’d Have You Anytime,” co-written by Dylan and Harrison), and Harrison makes some remarkable statements about himself, his history, the world in general, and life and death. These are heavy themes, but Harrison treats them with a stately dignity, and the songs never feel heavy handed or preachy (problems which some later Harrison songs would suffer from).

Lyrically, Harrison is in fine form here. “My Sweet Lord” is a beautiful meditation on the singer’s desire to know the nature of God; “Apple Scruffs” is an endearing tribute to a group of dedicated Beatles fans; “What is Life” is a rolicking, chugging love song with a punchy horn section; “Isn’t it a Pity” is a beautiful plea for peace, love, and understanding; and the title track is one of the deepest, most meaningful songs ever written.

That song, “All Things Must Pass,” is laden with meaning. On one level, it’s about the demise of the Beatles. On another, it’s about the end of a relationship. On yet another, it’s about life, death, and the transitory nature of reality. But Harrison never treats this passing as a negative thing. All things, he says, must pass; that is the nature of life. “Sunrise doesn’t last all morning,” he sings, but just as the good will pass, so will the bad: “Darkness only stays the nighttime,” and “It’s not always going to be this grey.” This is the ultimate song of hope: Harrison knows that nothing is here to stay, and that gives him a strange sense of comfort, because it means the chaos doesn’t last forever, either. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet notion that Harrison conveys in one of his most achingly beautiful melodies, a slow, strummed acoustic guitar setting the pace, and layers of guitar (slide and acoustic) and a subdued horn section only drive the point home.

One of the key features of the album is Harrison’s fascination with Eastern philosophy and religion. Several of the songs have religious elements or themes, whether it’s the prayer of “My Sweet Lord,” coming to terms with “The Art of Dying,” or “Chanting the Name of the Lord,” who is awaiting on us all (in “The Lord is Awaiting on You All,” of course). Harrison is nigh obsessed with the notion of God, deity, and the divine, and his own particular spirituality permeates every aspect of this album.

The CD reissue adds four new tracks–demo versions of “Beware of Darkness” and “Let it Down,” an alternate instrumental version of “What is Life,” and a new version of “My Sweet Lord” dubbed “My Sweet Lord (2000).” The two demos are excellent. “Beware of Darkness” almost has more impact in the simple acoustic guitar setting of the demo than in the final version, and “Let it Down” is more harrowing without the horns and backup singers. The instrumental of “What is Life” is interesting for the variation on the horn part from the original, and it makes for a fun karaoke verison to sing along to in the shower. The new “My Sweet Lord” featuers some breathtaking slide guitar work from George and a slightly varied arrangement and instrumentation, but the effect is rather ruined by the backup singer and Harrison’s own rather ragged vocal performance.

All Things Must Pass is one of the best rock albums of all time, hands down. None of the other former Beatles released anything like it upon the band’s initial breakup. It rivals McCartney’s Band on the Run and Lennon’s Imagine as the best ex-Beatle solo album, and for good reason. George may have been the quiet Beatle, but that was only because he was saving up all his words for this record.

Van Morrison – Astral Weeks

Another album review from the vaults as I continue to cannibalize my younger self’s work for present-day self’s own enjoyment and sense of fulfillment.

Astral Weeks is an album unlike anything else in Van Morrison’s catalogue. The fact that this can be said about virtually every single album he’s made doesn’t discount the uniqueness of this record, nor does it mean there is no cohesion or a sense of connected style across his body of work. It simply means that Van is flexible enough to be able to ingest a huge number of styles, synthesize them, and make them his own.

Astral Weeks is Van’s first true solo album, and it marks a radical departure from his work with the R&B combo Them. The making of the album is an amazing story–originally, Van signed to Bang Records after he left Them in 1968, and recorded songs such as “TB Sheets” and “Brown-Eyed Girl” for the label. However, they wanted him to replicate “Brown-Eyed Girl” with other singles, and Morrison wanted to follow a very different muse. He was under contract to record a set number of songs for Bang, so he went about recording a couple dozen song tidbits that are so completely throwaway that even completists and total fanatics dismiss them as irrelevant. His contractual obligations thus fulfilled, Van struck out on his own, eventually landing with Warner Brothers.

The album he recorded for Warner Bros. came from left field. He had the engineer for the record hire a group of session players, none of whom had ever even met each other, let alone Van. They recorded the album in the space of a few nights, coming together in the studio at the tail end of the night after they’d been playing with other bands and musicians all evening. This adds to the tone of late night, pre-dawn dreaminess that pervades the record. Musically, the instrumentation–which is very sparse, consisting mostly of acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, light drums (usually just the cymbals and high-hat), a few dashes of strings, a flute every now and then, and Van’s vocals–melds together well, especially for musicians who had never really worked together and didn’t really know the songs beforehand. The music threatens to float off into the ether at any moment, and words like “effervescent” and “ephemeral” are good descriptors. Most of the songs consist of rather repetitive chord progressions with little variation within a single song, giving the songs a pulse that lulls you.

Thematically, Van attempts to create a new mythology of his hometown of Belfast. The songs not only address the town, but Van’s attempts to come to grips with where he came from and where he is going, which is far away from home. However, he can never truly escape Belfast, as he is always “caught one more time” there, unable to truly let go of the past, but wanting desperately to break through to someplace better.

The album boasts some exceptional songs, lyrically. “Sweet Thing” is a beautiful paean to a lover, “Cyprus Avenue” paints a portrait of Van’s Belfast in such striking terms and colors that you feel you are walking down the street with him, and “Madam George” is a character sketch that only really hints at the true identity of the titular character.

Overall, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is a beautiful, moving album, one which speaks quietly rather than screaming from the speakers. There are layers of sound and meaning hidden within the record, and for those willing to dig into it, the rewards are great.

Old 97’s – Fight Songs

Here’s yet another album review, this one from September 2004. Apparently I spent all of graduate school listening to music and telling anyone who would listen what I thought about it.

So my most recent musical acquisition has been the Old 97’s fourth album, Fight Songs. It’s the follow-up to Too Far To Care, which is still their best record in my opinion.

The most noticeable difference between the two albums is the musical tone. Whereas Too Far To Care approached country music from a punk angle, Fight Songs takes the more traditional country-rock approach, a la Neil Young or some of Dylan’s ’70’s work. There’s still plenty of energy and twang here, but a lot of the ragged edges have been smoothed in favor of songcraft and melody.

The tradeoff works well, in this case. Rhett Miller’s lyrics and croon take centerstage, and his wordplay is as sharp as ever. Miller spent much of Too Far To Care yelping and speeding through his lyrics, attempting to keep up with the hyperactive music. On Fight Songs, he’s slowed down, giving each phrase the time and attention it deserves. He’s also toned down the vocal theatrics. Miller sings most of the songs with a croon reminiscient of Jeff Tweedy’s (from Wilco) or Elliot Smith, though more melodic than the former and less fragile than the latter.

Despite this slight stylistic shift in music and vocals, there are still plenty of rockers on the album. The lead-off tune, “Jagged,” keeps a great beat and has wicked lyrics. “Oppenheimer” sounds like something off of Rhett Miller’s solo album The Instigator in terms of the music and his delivery. “Indefinitely” has some wonderful vocal interplay between Miller and bassist Murray Hammond, and is one of the most straight-ahead pop-rock tunes on the album.

The highlight of the disc, though, is the closer “Valentine,” which features just an acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, and vocals courtesy of Murray Hammond (backed up by Miller). Lyrically, the song could be an old Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard tune, and features lines such as “Valentine the destroyer” and “Of all the many ways a man will break his heart/well there ain’t none meaner than he pulls his own apart.” It’s a witty, nakedly honest tune that leaves you wondering whether you’re supposed to smile or frown, and it closes out the album perfectly.

All in all, Fight Songs is a worthwhile effort from the Old 97’s. While it lacks Too Far To Care’s manic energy and enthusiasm, it’s still a fine album filled with wonderful tunes. Besides, Too Far To Care‘s shoes are pretty big to fill, and rather than attempting to, the Old 97’s took their music in a slightly different, and ultimately just as satisfying, direction.

Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue, Volume 1

I continue scavenging my own body of work for fun things to repost here. Have another album review, written sometime back in 2003, I believe, when I was but a poor graduate student.

It seems like a bad idea on the face of it–take a bunch of unused Woody Guthrie song lyrics and let a couple of contemporary musicians set them to music and record them. God only knows what sort of crap you’ll get–either stuff that tries too hard to be Guthrie and fails, or stuff that completely ignores Guthrie and fails.

But what we ended up with isn’t either of those. No, what we got is absolutely wonderful, 15 songs of absolute majesty, humor, warmth, wit, anger, and acute insight into not only the mind of one of American music’s most important songwriters, but a glimpse of the America he lived in and how that America was the same as and different from the America of his dreams. What we got is Mermaid Avenue.

The songs on this album (and its second volume, released a couple of years later) all used lyrics Woody Guthrie wrote from the late 1940s until his death in 1967. Guthrie himself stopped performing after about 1950 due to a neurological disease, but he kept writing until he died. In the early 1960s, he offered the lyrics to a young Bob Dylan, who initially took him up on the offer but was never able to get them from Guthrie’s wife (Dylan made mention of this in his excellent memoir Chronicles, Volume 1). Instead, almost forty years down the road, Guthrie’s daughter offered the lyrics to Billy Bragg, who promptly called up alt-country heroes Wilco and got down to picking out fifteen absolute gems for this record.

The album opens with the drunken sea shanty “Walt Whitman’s Niece,” a sly and raucous song about two drunken sailors in search of comfort and whores (there’s really no more polite way to phrase it, honest). It just gets better from there. Guthrie had a knack for capturing very human portraits in his music and for crafting wonderful images in his short, economical lyrical style.

The songs are divyed up between Bragg and Wilco, each taking a turn fronting the song (which means you’ve got either Bragg or Jeff Tweedy singing, essentially, though there’s one tune where Natalie Merchant takes the lead vocal to great effect). Each partner in this endeavour came up with music for a particular set of lyrics–Bragg was responsible for songs like “Walt Whitman’s Niece” and “Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key,” while Wilco did duty on “California Stars” and “Christ for President.” Each partner brought a different style and aesthetic to their songs, but the overall effect is very pleasing and very consistent. Bragg’s numbers tend to be more universal and enjoyable, though Wilco turns the children’s song “Hoodoo Voodoo” into a bright, cheerful sing-along. Wilco’s contributions, while not slouchy in any way, just aren’t as timeless as Bragg’s, and seem very much a part of the moment they were written in (you can hear that Wilco is between their Being There and SummerTeeth albums).

This is an album of wonderful gems of songs. “Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key” is a funny, dirty song about a young man in Okfuskee County (home of Okemah, Oklahoma, Guthrie’s home town) who convinces a young lady to go off with him into the woods to a “holler tree” (that’s “hollow tree” for those of you who don’t speak Okie) and take off her shirt by telling her that, yes, he may be ugly, but “there ain’t nobody who can sing like me.” “Christ for President” is a reminder that, while Guthrie was a Christian and a man of fairly traditional values, he was also a leftist who thought that big business and the government were ruining the country and perhaps America would be better if it followed true Christian values, starting with tossing the ol’ moneychangers out of the Temple.

Mermaid Avenue is a rousing, eclectic collection of excellent songs. It’s a reminder of Guthrie’s breadth and depth as a writer, and a fitting tribute to one of the icons of American music. But this is no mere tribute album; rather, it’s a true collaboration–lyrics from Guthrie, and music that makes no attempt to mimic or imitate Guthrie’s musical style from Bragg and Wilco. But even without attempting to sound like Guthrie in their playing, the partners manage to invoke Guthrie’s spirit and power in their music. It sounds nothing like the sort of songs Guthrie himself wrote, but you can feel his energy pulsing through these songs nonetheless. And that’s the greatest thing about the record–Bragg and Wilco’s contributions don’t feel grafted on, nor do Guthrie’s lyrics feel like they were crammed into existing melodies in some shoddy, half-assed effort to make money off a dead man. No, this is real collaboration across forty years’ time, and it works. I can’t wait to go pick up Volume 2 next paycheck.