Talk about your handicaps – given the green light by Nora
Guthrie to sift through her father’s voluminous songs-without-music archives,
the foursome of Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker and Jim James followed
where Billy Bragg and Wilco had already gone a decade-plus prior and turned in
two strong Mermaid Avenue
This new collection, New
Multitudes (Rounder), had other potential shortfalls: Farrar’s uneven
output since reforming Son Volt without the Boquist brothers and Mike Heidorn;
Parker’s uneven output after Varnaline (who? Yes, and his obscurity); and My
Morning Jacket’s James half-hiding behind the alias Yim Yames. And yet, well,
that’s why they play the games, to borrow the old sports saw.
The collection coincides with the centennial celebration of
Guthrie’s birth year, but focuses on one of the lesser-known eras in the
itinerant singer’s life – his years in L.A.
From the city’s infamous skid row to his time amongst the artists in Topanga Canyon, the songs find the same two
sides of Guthrie – the populist rabble-rouser and the romantic yet incorrigible
lady’s man – that Bragg and Wilco infamously battled over.
A sense of brotherhood replaces that contentious vibe here,
as each musician contributes three songs, but collaborates on each others’ as
well. It’s not unlike what James and Johnson do in the Monsters of Folk that
this foursome seems modeled after, but the idea from this goes further back.
The story goes that Farrar was supposed to be Bragg’s partner originally when
Nora first commissioned this idea back in 1996, but that didn’t work out. Farrar
and Parker, who collaborate behind the name Gob Iron, then visited the archive
in 2005 and recorded to some of Woody’s lyrics, but they lacked a budget and
record label to bring anything to fruition. (Those tracks may make up the Parker/Farrar-only eleven tracks on a bonus disc issued
with the limited edition — that’s the kind of thing we critics are meant to
figure out on our own.)
In the meantime, James visited the archives, and heard some
of the Farrar/Parker songs. It’s a good bet he did this around his
participation in Todd Haynes’ 2007 Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There, which of course highlighted Guthrie’s indelible mark
on Dylan. James apparently liked what he heard of Gob Iron’s takes, and after
contacting Farrar suggested that they bring his Monster of Folk buddy Johnson
in. Since the Centro-matic/South San
Gabriel leader had already collaborated with Farrar
and Parker in years past, and happens to play some mean drums, the foursome was
That level of familiarity turns out to be one of the records
strong suits, and something that distinguishes it from the Bragg/Wilco records.
If that record thrived on contention, this one’s ease can be attributed to the
brotherhood at its core.
For instance, Farrar’s back-up vocals supporting Parker, Johnson
and James – especially on the latter’s spare “Empty
Bed Blues” – are marvelous, and more than redeem his lackluster turn at the mic
on disc-opener “Hoping Machine.” Long-time followers will note that the Son
Volt leader’s voice, once so much more mature sounding than his age in Uncle
Tupelo, now sometimes takes on a nasal whine that, on his recent records, seems
taxed by his too often cumbersome lyrics. Here, he’s somehow located Guthrie
lyrics that fit that template – like the unwieldy chorus, “Don’t let any
earthly calamity/Knock your dreamer and your hoping machine” — and turned an
otherwise pretty melody into a lukewarm, piano-based track.
On the other hand, Farrar’s folk-blues take on “Careless
Reckless Love” resembles the confident voice that brought us the timeless road
music of Trace, and it stands out
here as the Farrar highlight. Well, it would, that is, but for Johnson’s
excellent Centro-matic rock spin on “V.D.
City,” where Farrar takes
an incandescent solo at the end, riding feedback like he’s breaking a wild
horse. It’s “Chickamauga”
good, and reconfirms that, outside of Neil Young and J Mascis, nobody does the
grind-it-til-you-find-it guitar solo better.
As for Johnson’s other contributions, the gorgeous
nylon-stringed melancholy of “Chorine My Sheba Queen” would fit the haunting,
lonesome fare he favors in South San Gabriel, while the muddy and fuzzy
percussion-stomp of “No Fear” contrasts with the quartet beautifully channeling
Guthrie at his most defiant: “I’m here on my deathbed/Taking my last breath/So
I’ve got no fears in life/I’ve got no fears of death,” they sing together with
Then there’s James, who contributes two of the most
compelling tracks that push into more experimental territory without loosening
the bonds to tradition. “My Revolutionary Mind,” with its lazy, hot-summer-day
pace and cicada-like click-track, is bathed in synth strings and sounds like it
could’ve come off MMJ’s At Dawn.
Lyrically, Guthrie’s lament that he can’t find a woman radical enough for him
combines both his populist and private life in tongue-in-cheek unison. The
harmony-heavy “Changing World,” on the other hand, feels like a mirror piece to
the defiance of “No Fear” – this Guthrie, the vulnerable one suffering from the
Huntington’s that would eventually kill him, is “afraid to live here,
friend/I’m afraid to die” in the face of a society rushing headlong toward,
well, who knows what. Still, the chorus — “Change the ways of this changing
world” – is a deathbed rallying cry that leaves us believing there’s nothing to
gain in giving up, either.
Parker may be the least-known of this foursome, but he’s captured Guthrie’s L.A. stage in perhaps more L.A.-friendly
fashion than the others. On the gorgeous country shuffle “Fly High,” the
record’s prettiest melody wafts in with the Topanga Canyon
morning fog. Parker taps into Sweetheart Byrds or the Paisley Underground’s twangy side on the harder-rocking “Old LA,”
and his “Angel’s Blues” cranks the volume higher than anything else here, conjuring
Young’s Crazy Horse through a wicked lap-steel solo.
To Dust Bowl Ballads/”This
Land Is Your Land” Guthrie fans, it may sound contradictory to hear their hero
bragging on “Angel’s Blues” that “I got more little angels than you find in the
promised land,” but it shouldn’t. Woody liked the ladies and the archives make
that clearer every time somebody emerges with more lyrics. His humanism,
though, was never meant to be confused with sainthood; yes, his machine
might’ve killed fascists, but it relied on brotherhood to do it. And a part of
brotherhood is not glossing over our weaknesses, but relying on our fellow man
to prop us up when they’re exposed.
That’s happened throughout New Multitudes, and made a winner of what seemed initially like a
proposition bound to lose.
High,” “Changing the World,” “VD City” JOHN SCHACHT