Give or take an occasional oddity, such as For a Few Dollars More or The Godfather, Part II, sequels seldom work as well as their predecessors. The stories they offer are generally nothing more than mere embellishments of an already established theme; the worst of them are utter travesties conceived to generate big piles of money. Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, the second collection of previously unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics set to music by Billy Bragg and Wilco, appears at first blush to be a knocked-off mishmash of leftovers, few of which rival anything on 1998's brilliant Mermaid Avenue. Where that set gained its strength by presenting a different portrait of Guthrie (one of a romantic, sexual humorist with the heart of a socialist and the giddy enthusiasm of a nine-year-old), Avenue II seems to lack focus, instead offering a bit of everything Guthrie did best, with nothing much to hold it together beyond the man's lyrical genius and unique vision.
Spend some time with it, though, and that's exactly what makes Mermaid Avenue Vol. II damn near as great as the first album. It spans the gamut of Guthrie's artistry, from his fiery political convictions to his faith in the verities of love and romance; from his pop-culture commentary to his knack for storytelling. Vocalists Bragg and Jeff Tweedy, Wilco's cracked-voice frontman, bring to the songs a panoply of emotions: shouting, righteous indignation; playful jubilance; tormented melancholy; the bubbly tingle of new and precious love. Wilco covers an equally wide patch of sonic territory, blazing like basement punks on All You Fascists, bashing out a bluegrass stomp on Airline to Heaven, pummeling a blues riff on Feed of Man, and serving up a shimmering mix of Beatles/Byrds jangle pop on the soaring Secret of the Sea and My Flying Saucer. And as on the first Mermaid disc, guitarist Jay Bennett proves he may be the most expansively gifted, outright amazing player in rock and roll today.
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Equally amazing is how this motley collective manages to capture the spirit that underpinned Guthrie's greatest work without pandering to any purist ideals or neofolk notions, or losing their respective identities within the twists and turns of the lyrics. Bragg's seething-rage vocal on All You Fascists fits perfectly alongside his own political manifestos, just as the gorgeous My Flying Saucer echoes his best love songs. (The tragicomedy of Hot Rod Hotel, however, is all Guthrie.) It's Wilco, though, that best illuminates the elliptical poetry and sweeping beauty of II's finest songs -- the achingly hopeful Someday, Some Morning, Sometime; the forlorn self-examination Remember the Mountain Bed; and Blood of the Lamb, the kind of song that gives religious faith a good name. The album's centerpiece is Feed of Man, a rambling piece of wordplay with a manic vocal, skittering guitars, clattering drums, and a sense of purpose charged with electricity, mayhem, and unsightly beauty -- an homage to both Guthrie and his greatest disciple, Bob Dylan. Woody would've probably loved it.