Bragg breathes life into 'lost' Guthrie


June 25, 1998|By J.D. Considine Country Brooks & Dunn

Billy Bragg & Wilco

Mermaid Avenue (Elektra 62204)

What is it about the unfinished work of great composers that leaves other musicians so eager to finish what death left incomplete?

We're used to seeing it happen in the classical field. There, unfinished symphonies by Bruckner, Mahler and Elgar were "finished" by scholars who used a mix of musicology and imagination to guess at how those works should have sounded.

It doesn't happen very often in popular music, though. Demos by Buddy Holly and outtakes from Jimi Hendrix were fashioned into full albums, and there were those old John Lennon songs that were Beatle-ized by Paul, George and Ringo for the Beatle "Anthology" releases.

But rock and roll has never seen a re-creation as ambitious as the one Billy Bragg and Wilco attempt on "Mermaid Avenue," on which they literally bring 15 "lost" Woody Guthrie songs to life.

When Guthrie died in 1967 of Huntington's disease, he left legacy of more than 1,000 songs. Unfortunately, the only written record he left were the lyrics -- Guthrie didn't know how to notate music. That meant that there was no way of knowing how the songs he never recorded should sound. Those melodies died with him.

Last year, at the invitation of Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, Bragg went through the Guthrie archives, looking for lyrics to resuscitate. Together with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, he completed 15 Woody Guthrie songs.

It would be hard to imagine a better testament to the enduring power of Guthrie's imagination. By turns raucous and witty, touching and insightful, these songs have more life in them than most of what currently inhabits the Top 40.

Sure, some of the lyrics seem a bit dated now, but that's hardly an impediment to appreciating the songs. Even if the specifics of "Ingrid Bergman" are inextricably tied to old movies, those too young to remember the Swedish actress' luminous beauty will have no trouble identifying with the star-struck longing at the song's core.

Mostly, though, what these songs demonstrate is how little the verities of pop songwriting have changed in the last four decades. Part of what made Guthrie's writing so powerful was the way it bridged the gap between the personal and the universal, and that comes through so clearly in songs such as "One By One" and "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" that the music seems utterly timeless, belonging equally to past and present.

As with any posthumous collaboration, there's a certain amount of presumption at work here, and folk purists may take umbrage at how rock-and-roll these songs sound. But even if you think the melody in "Hoodoo Voodoo" sounds more like John Fogerty than Woody Guthrie, it's still fun to hear -- and a great lyric, to boot.

Besides, would you rather have lost the song entirely? ***1/2 5 (Arista 18865)

There's no denying the potency of Brooks & Dunn's sound. Between the twangy, rock-tinged drive of the arrangements and the sweet, masculine sound of their harmonies, they touch on all the strengths of contemporary country music. But with "5," that formula is beginning to sound a bit, well, formulaic. Although there's plenty of power in heartbreak ballads like "How Long Gone" and the sweet, Glen Campbell-ish "Husbands and Wives," others -- "Brand New Whiskey," for instance -- are more concerned with wordplay and gimmickry than deep-down emotion. Granted, the duet with Reba McEntire, "If You See Him/If You See Her," throws its share of sparks, but even that seems more like a Vegas show-stopper than a country song. **

J.D. Considine


The Corrs

Talk on Corners (Lava/Atlantic 83106)

Forget that the four Corrs like to pick up fiddle, guitar, penny whistle and bodhran and play a reel or two -- this is a pop band, not an Irish folk group. So even though "Talk on Corners" has its share of traditional flavor, it's the singing and songwriting that carry the album. It's hard not to be smitten by the lush harmonies these four bring to the sleek, funky grooves of "When He's Not Around" and "I Never Loved You Anyway," but these aren't just a bunch of pretty pop songs. There's also a strong rock-and-roll sensibility to the group, as evinced by their startlingly strong, utterly individual covers of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" and Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing." Definitely worth discovering. ***

J.D. Considine


Traces of My Lipstick (So So Def 68042)

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