Originally released in 1998, "Mermaid Avenue" is a stunning collaboration between English folk singer/songwriter Billy Bragg and the American roots rock juggernaut Wilco that found the artists setting unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics to music. The initial release was so well received that a second disc of songs from the Mermaid Avenue Sessions was released in 2000.
Now, in conjunction with celebrations of what would have been Guthrie's 100th birthday, Nonesuch Records has bundled the first two albums, added a third disc of outtakes and unreleased songs from those same sessions and thrown in a DVD of the 1999 feature-length documentary film "Man in the Sand" chronicling the recording process to create an impressive 4-disc set.
Although the songs on the third Mermaid Avenue volume were not included on the previous two releases for a reason, they are still worth more than a passing listen. And just like those included on the prior collections, the songs on the third volume showcase many different facets of Guthrie as a songwriter - everything from the biting political and social commentary you might expect to more unexpected turns like straight-forward blues and ballads of love lost.
Give Me a Nail, with its simple and repetitive phrasing, is a mantra for taking action in life, while The Jolly Banker, a cautionary tale of the dangers of a banking system looking to capitalize on people struggling through tough financial times, is a prevalent now as it was when originally penned in the Great Depression/Dust Bowl days. Also Don't You Marry, which has a demo feel and features only Bragg and his resonator guitar, is a simple plea to a former lover and is another standout.
My Thirty Thousand, a ballad recounting the infamous 1949 Peekskill Riots in which the Ku Klux Klan and other groups attacked attendees at a Paul Robeson concert in New York's Westchester County, is both a lyrical and musical highlight. The song, which presents a first-person perspective on the day's events, is particularly compelling because Guthrie witnessed the concert and subsequent violence first-hand along with Lee Hays, Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi.
No matter if you are just discovering this compelling series of releases or a fan looking to round out a collection, the comprehensive "Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions" is worth checking out.