BILLY BRAGG & WILCO
On the follow-up to their critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated collaboration Mermaid Avenue, Billy Bragg and Wilco return with a fresh batch of songs, again setting previously unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics to newly composed music. This latest record, much like the first, rises above your standard tribute album by truly evoking the spirit of Woody Guthrie, playing more like a ghostly sketchbook where small pleasures and revelations are salvaged.
With songs about everything from spacecraft to fascism to Joe DiMaggio, this album is impassioned and moody. Many songs have a natural, relaxed sound that works well with the lyrics, like the soothing "Stetson Kennedy" and "Blood of the Lamb," a modest and elegantly simple number relying heavily on biblical imagery. "Airline to Heaven" has a real hootenanny sing-a-long feel while the understated pop melodies and cooing vocals of "Secret of the Sea" come alive thanks to mandolin, electric sitar, and a '70s style guitar solo. The album closer, "Someday Some Morning Sometime," is delicate and drowsy.
Natalie Merchant and Corey Harris make guest appearances, but the song featuring Harris is fairly weak and sounds out of place on this record. Though Mermaid Avenue Volume 2 lacks much of the impact of the original collection, it's almost as enjoyable as the first. Guthrie's refracted visions repeatedly take root and blossom, flourishing in the interpretive depth of these fine musicians. -Chris Webb
BELLE & SEBASTIAN
Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant
Hush, hush, sweet charlatans. The Scottish septet is now quieter than ever in their fourth album of string/flute/trumpet-spiced pop and sometimes confrontational, sometimes absurd lyrics. It's a subversive formula, to be sure, but it can sweep in listeners who apply some patience. On this fourth album, the odd group enigma grows more confident as multiple band members now blend their visions in songwriting as well as performance.
Stuart Murdoch used to dominate the proceedings, and he's still the guru-in-residence-but that makes sense, as the entire group came together just to help him meet some college-course project requirement. "The Chalet Lines" is a stark miniature in the mind of a rape victim, the voice perfectly displaced against a deliberate but unthreatening piano. "Family Tree" is a Murdoch song sung by the group's cellist Isobel Campbell. She puts up a breathy wobbling self-bearing when talking about relatives who do little beyond shopping and dieting: "The way they act! I'd rather be fat than be confused."
Such nugget-hunting of little poetic moments (including some lyrics which are much, much rougher than their instrumental accompaniment) represents absolute nirvana for Belle & Sebastian fans. The closing "There's Too Much Love" is practically a rave-up for this crew-you can actually hear an electric guitar riff, something the group usually puts behind the string section. And as Murdoch offhandedly sings "I'm brutal, honest, and afraid of you," echoes of Moondance-era Van Morrison bolster Belle & Sebastian's unique contribution. This is an unorthodox rescue party for those who cringe at the ever-closer merging of hip hop and metal.
MASTERS OF THE HEMISPHERE
Many bands out there may be able to write a great pop song about damn near anything. But no band does it like Athens, Georgia's The Masters of the Hemisphere. Their most recent effort is a strange pop concept album that revolves around the story of an evil dog named Freemdoom who terrorizes the fictional island of Krone Ishta. Yes, it sounds silly. But there's a comic book included so you can follow the story. Put all this together and you get a bold and bizarre album, a thematic undertaking that emerges a richly textured collection of pop songs to stimulate the mind and the ears.
Every song on this record is a memorable excursion, with echoes of the Beach Boys all over the place. The album opener, "So What About Freemdoom," ticks away gently and builds into a shimmering delight. The tune will immediately suck you in and subsequent songs like "The Dog Who Controls People's Lungs," "Mal's Throes," and "The New Freemdoom" will dazzle you with a giddy kaleidoscope of harmony and keyboard drenched melodies. The instrumental "Freemdoom's Lab" is a fascinating dose of experimental pop with programmed beats and multiple arcade-like effects.
A sophisticated, inspired combination of layered sounds and absurd lyrics, this is an adventurous record, and one that probably won't reach a very large audience. The lyrics may be ridiculous, but the music is brought to life with daring vitality. You'll be swept away in their deluge of ideas and pop whimsy. -Chris Webb