Short Cuts

Billy Bragg & Wilco
Mermaid Avenue
(Elektra)

Here's a collaboration for you: the English punk veteran Billy Bragg, the American postgrunge band Wilco, and Woody Guthrie. Right, that Woody Guthrie. His daughter Nora gave Bragg some of Guthrie's unknown lyrics, and he composed tunes for them with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett. The result is a mix of Guthrie's playfulness with a lot of post-Guthrie musical influences. While the album retains some folk flavor, it also offers punk and pop -- with the eclectic rock of Wilco and the contemplative yearnings of Bragg thrown in.

The music and the lyrics are often well matched. For example, Wilco makes solid punk-pop of "Hoodoo Voodoo," matching bouncy, nonsensical words ("Haystack hostacka, A B C") with rock rhythms supplied, in part, by Bragg and Corey Harris on electric guitars. Another highlight is "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key," in which hokey lyrics weave through a slightly melancholy tune given a pugnacious personality by Bragg's streetwise baritone.

Even 50 years after they were written, the lyrics in "Walt Whitman's Niece" still sound like the natural whimsy of a young mind: "Last night or the night before that/I won't say which night/A seaman friend of mine/I'll not say which seaman/Walked up to a big old building/I won't say which building," and so forth. Bragg gives the music on this song an appropriately self-conscious Okie tone with a two-note bass line and a harmonica. All it needs is someone playing the jug.

But a few decades do make a difference with the song "Ingrid Bergman," which sounds even stranger today than it must have when it was written: "This old mountain it's been waiting/ All its life for you to work it/For your hand to touch its hard rock,/Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman." Whereas it once reflected the unexpected yearning of a dusty folk legend for a glamorous, brainy pop icon, now (with Bragg on vocal) it sounds like a contemporary singer's yearning for a deceased pop icon.

The lyrics on this album were written in the late '40s and early '50s, when Guthrie lived on Mermaid Avenue, Coney Island (hence the album's title). Musical notation was missing from the lyric sheets, because Guthrie stored music in his head. Consequently, Bragg and Wilco were free to create all kinds of songs -- some countrified, others electrified. Whether or not Guthrie would have composed better melodies himself, this collaboration helps keep his legacy alive.

-- Barry Lank

Patty Griffin
Flaming Red
(A&M)

It may not be Bob Dylan shocking the world by going electric in 1965, but Patty Griffin's second album, Flaming Red, will certainly frustrate fans of her gripping 1996 debut, Living With Ghosts. The edgy folkie from Boston has plugged in, or at least hired an electric band to back her bright acoustic guitar and rich voice, which are less impressive in this rock 'n' roll setting. It doesn't help that the band is sterile. The melodies on Flaming Red are strong, and some songs have medium-size hooks, but the cliched drum beats, fuzzy electric guitar, and artificial keyboard sounds make Griffin sound more like an Alanis wannabe than the vibrant storyteller she is.

Flaming Red kicks off with the cacophonous title track, a bit of screeching rock with breakdowns and buildups announcing Griffin's new format. Her voice, as it is throughout the album, is remarkable: muscular and girlish at the same time. One of the disc's most affecting songs is "Change," a moderate-rock groove with a catchy chorus and some of the powerful, if painful, lyrics that are Griffin's specialty. "You make him ashamed for you," she sings. "He buys you a new dress/Because you make him ashamed for you/In your nakedness/So you change." On "Goodbye," a soft, country-tinged ballad about a dead friend, Griffin sings her aching imagery strongly and sadly: "Today my heart is big and sore/Trying to push right through my skin/I won't see you any more/I guess that's finally sinking in."

There are several other slow songs on Flaming Red, but only the tragic and delicate "Mary" matches the raw emotion so prevalent on Living With Ghosts. "Mary," the gifted singer moans, "you're covered in ashes/ You're covered in rain/You're covered in babies/You're covered in slashes."

Griffin comes through on Flaming Red with some strong, stick-in-your-head anthems ("Change," "Carry Me," "Blue Sky"), but too often her potent voice and wrenching words are forced to compete with a deluge of guitar with more effects than Godzilla and even, on "Wiggley Fingers," a lame "Foxy Lady" rip-off riff. Even Dylan would disapprove.

-- Jonathan Lesser

 
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