Best albums of 1998: #2 Billy Bragg and Wilco “Mermaid avenue”

After seeing him perform at a Woody Guthrie tribute concert in New York City, Guthrie’s daughter Nora contacted Billy Bragg in 1992 about a project. It seemed Woody Guthrie had left the lyrics for thousands of songs he had written but not recorded and for which, no music had been notated. Nora wanted to bring these songs to life for a new generation. Bragg agreed but not before enlisting the help of American alternative rock band, Wilco. The results were better than anyone could have expected, garnering critical acclaim, record sales, and a Grammy for everyone’s troubles.

I picked up on this album a few years after its release and mostly because I’d been a fan of Billy Bragg for a number of years. I’d heard a few of its songs beforehand but didn’t know then that they were re-creations of those written by Guthrie. Of course, when I first listened to it, I preferred the songs sung by Bragg to the others sung by Jeff Tweedy because I only knew Wilco by name, not their music. However, I have since grown to love all of the songs and appreciate the difference Tweedy’s voice lends to those others.

The sound and instrumentation of “Mermaid avenue” was definitely different from what I was used to with Bragg, which is likely why he wanted Wilco to help: to signal to all that this was not about him. It is old school Americana but with a modern edge, like actors dressing up in old costumes but speaking in modern colloquial. I’m not all that familiar with Woody Guthrie’s music, save for the iconic “This land is your land”, of course, but I have to imagine he would’ve been happy with the results. His daughter definitely was because the success of this album spawned two later volumes, as well as a box set collecting all of the compilations in one set.

It is typically difficult to narrow down my picks for you to three but this one was near impossible so I just took the first three in running order. Enjoy.


“Walt Whitman’s niece”: My first pick here is a song that sounds like a tall tale that might be spun in any bar in the world. “Last night or the night before that, I won’t say which night, a seaman friend of mine, I’ll not say which seaman…” It is a literary conquest sung (and told) by Bragg with the band members of Wilco as house band. You can almost picture Bragg sitting precariously on a stool having at it on his guitar after one too many and the band stomping along with him at the piano and harmonica, shouting along with him at the appropriate parts. It’s unseemly and full of innuendo and lots of good fun. Whitman would’ve been proud.

“California stars”: Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) sings this next one around the campfire after a hard day’s work in the fields with fellow workers. “I’d like to rest my heavy head tonight on a bed of California stars. I’d like to lay my weary bones tonight on a bed of California stars.” It is a clear but lonely night. The sky is big and full of stars but not the same ones that watch over California, where his beloved lays sleeping and waiting for him. You can feel this longing and dreaming in every strum on the guitar, whine of the pedal steel and peal of fiddle. Tweedy’s voice is perfect here, giving it a completely different than it would’ve had if sung by Bragg. It’ll charm you for sure.

“Way over yonder in the minor key”: This one’s got a feel that reminds me of Huck Finn or The Little Rascals. “Her mama cut a switch from a cherry tree and laid it on the she and me. It stung lots worse than a hive of bees but there ain’t nobody that can sing like me.” Its language is childish, like a skipping game or patty cakes, and suggests a young first love. Billy Bragg leads the tale with Natalie Merchant adding her lovely vocals at the chorus. It’s gentle and melancholic, perhaps a remembering of a time long gone. It’s so beautiful, you’ll want to listen to it over and over again.


Check back next Thursday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Sloan “Navy blues”
9. Cake “Prolonging the magic”
8. Embrace “The good will out”
7. Mojave 3 “Out of tune”
6. Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”
5. Manic Street Preachers “This is my truth now tell me yours”
4. Pulp “This is hardcore”
3. Neutral Milk Hotel “In the aeroplane over the sea”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

100 best covers: #79 Mumford And Sons “The boxer”

<< #80    |    #78 >>

Here’s one that might incite comments. Or maybe it’ll just incite vitriol. I usually finish these posts with the question of which you prefer, the cover or the original, but I’m pretty I sure I know the answer to this one already.

Mumford and Sons brought back the banjo in a big way in the late 2000s. It feels like the centre around which their platinum-selling debut album, “Sigh no more”, crowded, but really, they used a lot of non-traditional rock instruments to build their sound. I really liked the debut when I first heard it (still do, really) and because I don’t often listen to commercial radio, didn’t realize that it made them a household name until I saw a part of their set at Osheaga in 2013. Already by this time, though, the typical backlash that accompanies a meteoric rise had begun to set in. There really is a lot of hate out there for them. I’m not sure I completely understand it. However, I will say that with each successive album I’ve become more and more ambivalent, especially after they dispensed with their trademark sound on their third record and started to head down the vanilla pop road, hot on the trails of Coldplay.

They covered Simon & Garfunkel’s classic folk pop tune, “The boxer”, just before they remade themselves, and released it as a bonus track on the deluxe edition of their 2012 sophomore release, “Babel”. This is a tune I have known and loved since high school and can remember singing the words along with my classmates on the bus trip back from a particular weekend winter retreat. Though Simon & Garfunkel were usually on the quieter side of folk, this was a jauntier number and when I saw that Mumford had covered it, I thought I would enjoy it even before I had heard it.

The instrumentation is different but the feel is very much in the same vein, the banjo, resonator guitar, and even Marcus Mumford’s vocals lending the tune some uplifting sadness. And it is just as easy to sing along with on that “la la lie” chorus.

So though I won’t bother asking the question, I will say that at least Paul Simon must have approved of this cover, given that he appeared on it, along with resonator guitar legend Jerry Douglas.

The cover:

The original:

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.

Live music galleries: Father John Misty [2012]

(I got the idea for this series while sifting through the ‘piles’ of digital photos on my laptop. It occurred to me to share some of these great pics from some of my favourite concert sets from time to time. Like my ‘Vinyl love’ series, these posts will be more photos than words but that doesn’t mean I won’t welcome your thoughts and comments. And of course, until I get around to the next one, I invite you to peruse my ever-growing list of concerts of page.)

Father John Misty @ Bluesfest

Artist: Father John Misty
When: July 11th, 2012
Where: River Stage, Ottawa Bluesfest, Ottawa
Context: Josh Tillman left his post as drummer for Fleet Foxes in 2012 and released his debut album under the moniker Father John Misty in April. I loved the psych folk extravaganza of “Fear fun” (and still consider it my favourite of his albums) but wasn’t at all expecting how great he’d be when I saw him live three months later. His touring band was also very good but unfortunately, I could not find out much about them online (and so could only provide the names of the few I could identify). Josh Tillman was particularly hilarious between songs, spouting random zingers, like when he pointed out a volunteer holding a question mark placard denoting “Information” and quipped that he loved the kid’s existential sign. It was a short set in all but I’ve seen him twice more since and am looking forward to seeing him a fourth time this coming weekend.
Point of reference song:
I’m writing a novel

Josh Tillman aka Father John Misty
Jeffertitti Moon and Benji Lysaght
unknown touring drummer for Father John Misty
Josh Tillman and Benji Lysaght
unknown touring guitarist and keyboard player for Father John Misty
Josh Tillman on the tambourine