Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker and Yim Yames – New Multitudes (2012)

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Although New Multitudes is bound to draw some comparisons to Mermaid Avenue — the similarly Woody Guthrie themed project from Wilco and Billy Bragg from about a decade ago — the timing for a record like this couldn’t be better.

With economic hard times finally beginning to inspire some creative push back from the music community — the most recent example being Bruce Springsteen’s excellent new Wrecking Ball album — the social, cultural and political climate of America is certainly ripe for a revival of interest in an original folkie protest icon like Woody Guthrie.

Except, that many of the songs on New Multitudes don’t seem to fit into the protest category at all.  Or at least when they do, the references seem to be mostly subtle ones.

Instead, this modern-day band of troubadours — Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo), Will Johnson (Centro-matic, South San Gabriel), Anders Parker (Varnaline, Gob Iron) and Yim Yames (a.k.a. Jim James of My Morning Jacket) — seem more intent to concentrate on Guthrie’s considerable heft as a songwriter. In coming up with original new music for a number of Guthrie’s unfinished (or otherwise unpublished) lyrics, each of these guys brings his own unique musical personality to this collection. The songs here are mostly given a modern folk-rock facelift for the new millennium, while at the same time never straying too far from the original, depression era spirit intended by Woody Guthrie himself.

In that sense, nothing here really clobbers you over the head (at least, not in the same way that much of Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball does for example). Jay Farrar’s interpretation of “Hoping Machine” comes close though, matching a dirge-like dustbowl blues, to Guthrie’s lyrics equating hopes and dreams to something that is “out of order” when it comes to dubious machinations in the halls of power (a most timely reminder given the modern day political gridlock in Washington).

There is likewise little mistaking the political sentiments when Yames sings about how Guthrie needed “a progressive woman, an ultra liberal woman, a socially conscious woman, to ease my revolutionary mind.” The way the sparse arrangement of this song ends in a cacophonous wall of noise only further underscores the point. Yames haunting voice is also perfectly matched to “Talking Empty Bed Blues,” where it takes on an almost eerie, ethereal sort of quality.

But most of the time, the songs on New Multitudes carry a much lighter aura. Even on a song with the seemingly precarious title of “V.D. Blues,” these guys turn Guthrie’s lyrics into a Dylan-esque romp that wouldn’t be a bit out of place on an album like Highway 61 (Will Johnson also does a fine job of nailing Dylan here). “Old L.A.” (where Guthrie spent different periods of his life both on Skid Row and in Topanga Canyon) is another standout here, with some very nice guitar crankage in the best traditions of sixties L.A. folk-rock jangle.

Some of the best songs on New Multitudes however, also deal with simpler, more universal concerns.

Farrar’s voice is particularly well-suited to a love song like “Reckless Love” (people sometimes forget that in addition to his famous protest songs, Guthrie was also perfectly adept at composing romantic tunes). There’s also an air of quiet dignity to the song “No Fear,” which if the lyrics are to be believed, may have been written from Woody Guthrie’s deathbed (“I got no fears in life, I got no fears in death”).  Here, Farrar, Yames and company turn the song into a statement of triumph over sorrow, mirroring the joy Guthrie apparently wanted to communicate with his words. “Changing Worlds,” another unfinished song which appears to be (at least partially) about death, turns into an almost spooky sounding cross between gospel and gregorian chanting. Yim Yames voice is again stunningly effective here.

Made under the tutelage of Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora (who granted the musicians unprecedented access to Guthrie’s private library of songs), New Multitudes captures the essence of one of America’s most legendary songwriters with the sort of loving care that Guthrie himself no doubt would have appreciated. In addition to the original 12 song CD, it is also available on vinyl and in an expanded, limited edition with Guthrie’s lyric sheets and additional tracks.

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Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd

The Something Else! Reviews webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, is syndicated through Bing News, Topix and AllAboutJazz.com. The site has been featured in The New York Times, NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, the NoDepression.com Americana site, Popdose.com and JazzTimes, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com, Rock.com, Blues Revue Magazine and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at [email protected]
Glen Boyd
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