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Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions, by Billy Bragg and Wilco

On Mermaid Avenue (1998), Billy Bragg and Wilco wrote and recorded music for some of the 3,000 tuneless lyrics Woody Guthrie left behind. The stunning result was so much more than a reverent, Pete-Seeger-and-friends tribute album could ever be: the great Guthrie expanded in our cultural imagination and introduced to a new generation.

Vol. II (2000) has a good song or two, but none at the level of the original’s weakest—these are leftovers, not new material. So it’s a pleasant surprise that Mermaid Avenue Vol. III—sold as a box set with the first two and a 1999 making-of documentary—isn’t just the bottom of the barrel. Bragg’s contributions are more deeply folk-rooted than on the first two volumes; on their strength, I’d call this the second best of the three:

And bluesman Corey Harris, a supporting player in the sessions, is put to better use here than before. If you haven’t heard the original Mermaid Avenue, stop reading and go find it. If you already love it, this second sequel is worth a listen.

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