The latest installment in an ongoing project to resurrect Woody Guthrie's "lost" songs and stories, as a means of celebrating his 100th birthday (but also just to get the work out in the world), New Multitudes features a collaboration between some of the Americana and folk world's best singer-songwriters. Jay Farrar (Son Volt), Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket), Will Johnson (Centro-Matic), and Anders Parker (Gob Iron) teamed up to put their spin and imagination to some of these unknown Guthrie tunes. The result is kind of a mixed bag, though it's likely to spark the interest of folks who may not otherwise seek out the work of a traditional topical folkie like Woody Guthrie.
Some Background Info
was a compulsive creator. He composed thousands of songs in his life. (He also drew innumerable cartoons, wrote countless stories.) In fact, the number of songs he wrote far outnumber those he ever performed or recorded. Many of them were discarded on napkins or other stray sheets of paper, and have been getting recovered for the past several years. Guthrie's daughter Nora has been handing the lyrics (Guthrie never wrote down the music) to a number of rather talented contemporary artists and charging them with coming up with arrangements and releasing the songs into the world. Billy Bragg and Wilco released the Mermaid Avenue
album as part of this project. Last year, a slew of others got together to record Note of Hope
- an album compiling Guthrie's "lost" songs and stories set to music.
It's always interesting to hear what current artists do with Guthrie's music, and to imagine how Guthrie himself might perform these songs if he had modern recording available and bands of contemporary instrumentalists backing him up. Would he inject a guitar solo like the one which distorts and screams through the end of "My Revolutionary Mind" (purchase/download)? Or would it sound a little more acoustic and subdued (like "Fly High")?
A Mixed Bag
Hardcore Woody Guthrie fans may not warm to this disc too quickly. After all, Guthrie's work was famously simple. It didn't need ambitious arrangements or decorative atmospherics to get the point across. What made Guthrie's work so inimitable and timeless was that it didn't carry the crutch of decoration. It said what it needed to say and then moved on. Some moments on this disc go the opposite direction. "V.D. City" (purchase/download
), for example, is presented like a sort of punk song, complete with distorted guitar solo which pushes straight through to ear-piercing feedback.
Certainly, there's an element of Guthrie's work which possesses a certain punk rock attitude and therefore lends itself to that kind of interpretation. It's easy to understand why modern musicians might pull it in that direction. But, especially for folks inclined toward Guthrie's work because of its unwavering allegiance to the simplicity and accessibility of the folk aesthetic, these treatments often go a bit too far toward trying to appeal to a certain group. It seems out of sync with Guthrie's more universal approach.
Then again, there are songs like "Talking Empty Bed Blues" (purchase/download) and "New Multitudes" (purchase/download), wherein the artists here seem to trust the song itself a little more. Here, the listener is able to focus on what the song is trying to communicate, rather than trying to burst through thick walls of sound to get to the true meaning of the song.
The Bottom Line
If this weren't presented so staunchly as being at least part "Woody Guthrie album," it might be a little easier to swallow. But, right down to the artwork on the cover and inside, it looks and feels like we're supposed to take it as a presentation of Woody's work.
More accurately, though, this is an album by a band called New Multitudes, who have borrowed Woody Guthrie's lyrics to make music entirely separate from that great troubadour's legacy. And that's fine. Musically, if we separate it from Guthrie, it's a darn good rock and roll record. It's a versatile collection of songs inspired by an age-old influence. But if we're to look at it as a collection of Woody Guthrie songs, there's something left wanting.
It all depends on your perspective.