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Working Wonders With Guthrie

*** 1/2 BILLY BRAGG & WILCO, "Mermaid Avenue Volume 2," Elektra

May 27, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN

The 1998 foray by Englishman Bragg and American band Wilco into the vast vaults of Woody Guthrie's "lost" lyrics to construct new songs was an extremely rewarding side trip. This follow-up might be even better. They're even more comfortable with the territory, crafting music that is stamped with their own identities yet always serving Guthrie's words perfectly.

Arguably, Wilco shines brighter this time, both backing Bragg and in its own spotlight songs. The opening "Airline to Heaven" sets the tone, with rough-hewn percussion and a rusty acoustic slide-guitar lick pushing Jeff Tweedy's Dylanesque vocals like an outtake from "Blonde on Blonde." Tweedy adds more twists to folk and folk-rock styles with the rolling "Secret of the Sea," the lovely, sad "Remember the Mountain Bed" and the choppy, Kurt Weill-like "Blood of the Lamb."

Bragg as well dives into both Guthrie's playful ("My Flying Saucer") and political (a forceful "All You Fascists Are Bound to Die") sides, sounding almost as if he'd written the words himself. Natalie Merchant, a guest on the first "Mermaid," is a fine fit here on "I Was Born," a ditty Guthrie wrote for his daughter. And blues singer Corey Harris has spirited fun on the social satire "Against th' Law." But for all the voices involved, Guthrie's remains foremost. Let's hope there are more volumes coming.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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