If he were around today, it figures that Woody Guthrie would make music that sounds like Dylan and Springsteen, Costello and the Clash. In this "collaboration" with the great American bard, Irish folk singer Billy Bragg and Chicago alt-roots band Wilco follow those paths, and though it might be obvious, it's also appropriate--you don't want to get too fancy here.
These lyrics from the Guthrie archives (written mainly in the 1940s) don't offer anything to stand with his classics, but they're fine footnotes. The dominance of love songs full of ache and exuberance shines a different light on a writer who's known mainly for his work on a larger, social/political scale.
The set also skims across a range of Guthrie trademarks--bawdy narratives, mystical philosophy, leftist broadsides, abstract verbal nonsense, wry political comment and whimsical reverie (an off-the-wall ode to actress Ingrid Bergman). Even the verses that seem dashed off and undeveloped bear the stamp of a master wordsmith and a constantly striving artist.
With Bragg (who plays the House of Blues on Thursday) and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy each singing seven songs and guest Natalie Merchant taking one, "Mermaid Avenue" can initially seem disjointed and unfocused, but ultimately its ramshackle approach proves to be the perfect channel for Guthrie's raucous and irrepressible spirit.
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* Excerpts from these albums and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips