Back in 1998 Nova Guthrie, daughter of American folk singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, invited Billy Bragg and Wilco to trawl through the many sets of unpublished lyrics and make their own recordings out of what they could find. The resulting two records, Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue Vol II, were released to critical acclaim and led to further releases by Blackfire and Jonatha Brook as well as a compilation, Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie, released last year.
Now, 14 years on from Bragg and Wilco’s initial collaboration, a new group of musicians are putting his words to music with the blessing of the Woody Guthrie Foundation (who look after the archived works) in commemoration of his centennial birth year. Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Gob Iron, Uncle Tupelo) was intending to embark on this new project on his own but with Will Johnson (Centro-matic, South San Gabriel) as a contributor before Anders Parker (Varnaline, Gob Iron) and Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket, Monsters of Folk) got involved. The result is New Multitudes, an album that never fails to engross.
The main focus of attention is the lyrics. What’s been chosen from Guthrie’s vast files showcases a wide wange of moods and emotions. No Fear seems to stare death in the face and spit in its direction, especially since its main refrain is “Got no fear of life, got no fear of death,” though this is juxtaposed by the next track, Changing World, where the phrase “I’m afraid to die” is heard loud and clear. Away from morbid matters, Fly High is a charming romantic number – it’s hard not to swoon over words like “I’m flying high up in the sky but my heart keeps looking for you down on the ground” – and Hoping Machine is gloriously optimistic and hopeful.
Putting all of that aside for the moment though, this is an expertly crafted collection of songs. Tracks like Fly High and Careless Reckless Love are very simple compositions but are effective in what they set out to do. Some songs on the other hand take unexpected turns. Talking Empty Bed Blues goes from intimate acoustic ballad to a full-band effort with crashing drums and beautiful harmonies and My Revolutionary Mind is warm-sounding and sparse before all of a sudden it explodes for a few seconds before its abrupt end.
New Multitudes works as a whole because the recordings feel ‘live’. It’s as if all four musicians were playing their instruments in the same room. Of course, this is code for saying that it isn’t a polished piece of work; for some parts of its running time it sounds as if they’ve just plonked some microphones in a few random places, and there’s even have a smattering of studio talk here and there. But if this was produced in a slick manner it would lose some of the sense of discovery.
Back in 2004, Billy Bragg said “there’s so much stuff” in the archives that “Nora could keep doing this project over and over”. If that is the case and if Farrar, Johnson, Parker and Yames return for a second instalment then that can only be a good thing, for they have made a respectful and meticulous album that brilliantly shows off the skills of both Guthrie as a writer and the musicians involved as interpreters.