Emptying the vault: Billy Bragg and Wilco

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A couple of weeks ago the Reader's Asher Klein celebrated the tenth anniversary of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. He clearly considers it the band's peak, an assessment I can't agree with. Wilco has had a couple distinct phases, and though that record was obviously the turning point between them, the band made a lot of fantastic music both before and after it. In fact, two of my favorite Wilco albums were reissued as a single release just a couple of days before Klein's post, as part of Record Store Day—and thankfully the reissue wasn't pressed in a tiny limited edition or repackaged in an inconvenient format. Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions (Nonesuch) collects both of the albums Wilco made with Billy Bragg, where they set unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics to original music, along with a third disc of previously unissued songs from the same sessions. The package also includes a DVD of the 1999 documentary Kim Hopkins made about the project, Man in the Sand.

I interviewed Jeff Tweedy about the project in January 1998, a few months before the first volume came out, and I remember him saying that he imagined himself participating in epic sessions that would traverse the full range of American roots music, the way Bob Dylan and the Band did in Woodstock, New York, in 1967, after the former's convalescence from a 1966 motorcycle accident. Dylan and the Band ended up recording more than 100 songs, 24 of which were commercially released in 1975 on The Basement Tapes; most of the others circulated much earlier on bootlegs. Together the three discs of Mermaid Avenue total 47 tracks, and one of the songs on disc three is a cover of Guthrie's "The Jolly Banker" cut by the current version of Wilco in 2009. Admittedly, Dylan and the Band had more time—Wilco and Bragg did all their work at a handful of sessions in Chicago and Dublin—but Mermaid Avenue is still a stunning collection.

Some of the new songs on disc three are solo performances, and on a few others the project's guest musicians (Natalie Merchant and Corey Harris) take a lead role. Disc three doesn't equal the first two, but the fact that the outtakes are this good just reinforces how special the whole effort was. Back when the Mermaid Avenue records were originally released, I wrote that they were the first time I'd truly enjoyed Billy Bragg, and the subsequent 12 years have done nothing to change my conviction that this is Bragg's brightest moment. I wouldn't say this is Wilco's finest work, especially since Tweedy didn't write the lyrics, but they're playing in top form, right around the time they made Summerteeth. This wasn't long before the lineup here—Tweedy, drummer Ken Coomer, guitarist Jay Bennett, and bassist John Stirratt—unraveled prior to and during the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, taking with it the band's relatively pure investment in American roots music.

Today's playlist:

Various artists, Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label (Numero Group)
CoH, Iiron (Editions Mego)
Skúli Sverrisson, Sería II (Sería Music)
Nico, Chelsea Girl (Polydor)
David Binney, Barefooted Town (Criss Cross Jazz)

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