Billy Bragg & Wilco
Mermaid Avenue Vol. II
When Billy Bragg and Wilco first released their sometimes traditional, sometimes radical renditions of previously unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics on 1998's Mermaid Avenue, they were obviously onto something.
Inventive, unexpected, and thoroughly refreshing, Mermaid Avenue easily ranked among the very best albums of that year.
But sequels, rarely if ever match the original magic.
Surprisingly, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II is quite nearly as strong as its predecessor. It's a bit tougher sounding and ever-so-slightly tilted in Wilco's direction rather than rabble-rouser Bragg. But it is every bit as inspired as the first volume, from the moment the crew spins into the guitar-shuffling set opener "Airline to Heaven," straight through standouts like Bragg's playful "My Flying Saucer" or the jangling pop gem "Secret of the Sea."
Listening to the latter, with its sweet harmonies, saloon-styled piano runs and slide guitar solo makes one realize how truly imaginative Bragg and Wilco were with their interpretations of never-before-recorded Guthrie lyrics that were culled from the late great songwriter's archives by his daughter Nora Guthrie.
Volume 2 also includes a couple of impressive guest contributions — Natalie Merchant's quietly alluring "I Was Born" and Corey Harris' magnificent, roaring, and raspy run through the irreverent "Against Th' Law."