New Multitudes (Rounder)
Reviewed by Austin Powell, Fri., April 20, 2012
Like Mermaid Avenue, the two-part collaboration between Wilco and Billy Bragg, New Multitudes is a resilient tribute to Woody Guthrie based on the folk pioneer's unpublished lyrics. That's where the similarities end. This project pulls together four more songwriting stalwarts of alt.country and indie rock in Son Volt's Jay Farrar, Centro-matic/South San Gabriel leader and local Will Johnson, My Morning Jacket shaman Yim Yames, and Varnaline's Anders Parker, all of whom have a shared history worthy of a flowchart. In that regard, New Multitudes' foursome closely resembles Monsters of Folk; it's a complimentary collective born of mutual trust and admiration, wherein each songwriter puts his distinct stamp on Guthrie's catalog. For his part, Johnson's stark ballad "Chorine My Sheba Queen" aches with tender despair, haunted by Yames' shadowy harmony, while his visceral "V.D. City" sounds like an outpost from Centro-matic's Fort Recovery, the singer spitting with disgust: "There's a street name for every disease here." Likewise, Farrar stretches the words to the golden-hued proverb "Hoping Machine," originally taken from a journal entry, in a manner that recalls his work on One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur. Yames approaches the acoustic "Talking Empty Bed Blues" with the solemn clarity of MMJ's At Dawn demos. In doing so, New Multitudes brings out many sides of Guthrie – that of fleeting romantic (Farrar's "Careless Reckless Love"), master of character sketches (Parker's barbed romp "Angel's Blues"), and radical poet, as in Yames' sexually liberated "My Revolutionary Mind," which turns on midway like White Album-era Beatles. Guthrie's complex and often contradictory nature is most apparent in the LP's late pairing of fatal incantations: Johnson's "No Fear" and Yames' woolly "Changing World," the former approaching death unflinchingly and the latter rattling apprehension.