Billy Bragg Discusses "Mermaid Avenue" Across the BBC; Its "Wealth of Quality Material Is Remarkable," Says Q (Four Stars)
Billy Bragg has been featured across the BBC airwaves all week in celebration of the release of Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions last Saturday for Record Store Day and the week's "must-have reissue" according to the Sunday Times of London. Kicking things off last Saturday morning, Bragg was the live studio guest on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live, appearing throughout the hour-long show to discuss Woody Guthrie, Record Store Day, politics, and his career. Listen online at bbc.co.uk. Later that morning, Bragg appeared live on BBC London's Robert Elms show, also available at bbc.co.uk, where his segment begins at about 39 minutes in. He was also interviewed about Record Store Day for Saturday’s edition of Newshour from the BBC World Service, available here at about 47 minutes in.
Last night, Bragg was a guest on BBC Radio 3's Night Waves, available here, with his segment on at 15 minutes into the show. And tune in this coming Sunday, April 29, to hear Bragg on BBC Radio 2's Johnnie Walker show, sharing his memories of the 1970s, starting at 3 PM GMT.
On the acclaimed Mermaid Avenue albums, Billy Bragg and Wilco put music to lyrics by folk legend Woody Guthrie for which he had not written music or made recordings. Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions, which Details dubs a "must-have box set" and Consequence of Sound a "must-buy," includes the original two volumes (the second re-mastered); a third volume with 17 previously unreleased recordings from those sessions; the 1999 documentary on the sessions, Man in the Sand; and a 48-page booklet with new liner notes by Nora Guthrie, lyrics, archival photographs, and facsimiles of lyric sheets and sketches by Woody Guthrie.
As great a presence as Guthrie is across the musical landscape, not least in the musical lives of Dylan and Springsteen, "nobody has picked up on Woody as effectively—or unexpectedly—as this transatlantic get-together," writes Ninian Dunnett of the Bragg/Wilco collaboration in the BBC Music review. "And at root, really, it isn’t about musical taste any more than it’s about politics. Bawdy, smart, big-hearted and mischievous, Mermaid Avenue is simply all about a personality that is rich with life." Read the complete review at bbc.co.uk/music.
Q gives the album four stars. The music of the original two volumes proved "warm, harmonious and wonderful alt-country that modernized Guthrie rather than mimicking him," writes reviewer Tom Bryant. "The pairing's creative spark was bountiful ... as each camp gorged on Guthrie's words." The new set, he explains, "adds a further volume of unheard tracks from the sessions, which offer room for Wilco experimentalism, Bragg's politics and more authentic Guthrie-styled folk-blues." The Mermaid Avenue project "was always an interesting idea," Bryant concludes. "That it produced such a wealth of quality material is remarkable." Read the review in the latest issue of Q, out now.
The collection receives an impressive 8.1 from Pitchfork.
"No other posthumous reconsideration has captured Guthrie in all his compelling contradictions as precisely or as affectionately as Billy Bragg and Wilco's Mermaid Avenue did in 1998," writes Pitchfork reviewer Stephen M. Deusner. "The liveliness of Guthrie's lyrics precludes any deadening reverence, and Bragg and Wilco rise to the occasion with music that respects the source material but never sounds beholden to any particular conception of Woody Guthrie ... Mermaid Avenue was such a deeply nuanced and humanizing portrait of a larger-than-life character that it significantly shifted how listeners thought of Guthrie, especially at the end of the decade that produced the criminally reverent alt-country movement."
Deusner goes on to echo the sentiment expressed in Bryant's Q review. "What's remarkable is the wealth of material available to these artists and the number of gems these sessions produced,"Deusner writes, concluding: "By presenting a more rounded portrait of Guthrie in which politics is only one subject among so many, The Complete Mermaid Avenue Sessions shows just what Guthrie was fighting for and provides a persuasive rebuke to anyone who might whittle the man down to just one dimension. "
Read the complete review at pitchfork.com.
Drowned in Sound rates this "wonderful reissue" a nine out of ten. "For those who haven’t heard the originals, this is as opportune a moment as any to unearth some of the strongest songs in either artist's back catalogue," writes reviewer Dan Lucas. And yet, he goes on to explain, the collection offers as much for those who are familiar with these tunes.
"Even for those who already have both of the previous volumes, Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions is a fascinating look at one of America’s greatest writers," Lucas concludes. "As Nora Guthrie puts it in her liner notes, 'Billy and Wilco single-handedly burst through time itself, altering every previous perception anyone ever had about Woody Guthrie; his look, his language, his tone, his rhythm, his purpose, his heart and soul. All of our thoughts about him have now been forever altered in some way.'”
Read the complete review at drownedinsound.com.
To pick up a copy of Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions 3-CD+DVD set, head to the Nonesuch Store, where orders include high-quality, 320 kbps MP3s of the three volumes at checkout.