ALBUM REVIEW: Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Andes Parker, Yim Yames – New Multitudes

Written for the 405

Woddy Guthrie (1912-1967): protest singer, activist, mentor to Bob Dylan, owner of fascist-killing machine. Guthrie was a revolutionary, both politically and musically. So there’s the two main problems with New Multitudes, an album of songs written but unrecorded by Guthrie, set to music by the likes of former Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt man Jay Farrar, Will Johnson (Centro-matic), Anders Parker (Varnaline), and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James (billed as “Yim Yames”).

The first one: wisely, the foursome leave Guthrie’s preachier fare well alone, save for opener ‘Hoping Machine’ (example lyric:”Music is language of the man that travels/And carries the keys to the lands of time and space”). A lot of that songwriting seemed sincere, fresh at the turn of the century sounds hokey, cheesy, when listened to nowadays.

Instead the band set up shop with a collection of songs that are, essentially, standards. Guthrie, who began playing music in 1930, preceded whole movements, whole genres of music, not least of all being Country music. So again, what sounded fresh and new when heard live or on old wax cylinder recordings, is not so much now.

Secondly, they’re not re-treading the same ground as Guthrie, but they’re not exactly breaking any new stuff either. Instead their footsteps follow the alt-country sound of Wilco et al or, worse, they perform these “standards” like a that blues bar band from Ghost World. The biggest culprit for this is, easily, ‘VD City’, with a guitar solo which thinks of itself as badass, but is more half-arsed.

‘My Revolutionary Mind’ is easily the highlight of the album. It’s goofy, romantic. It’s a love song as you’d expect Guthrie to write: lines like “I need a progressive woman / I need an awfully liberal woman / I need a socially-conscious woman,” performed over a gently lilting alt-country backing, with synths straight out of the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin. It’s telling that the two best songs (this and ‘Changing World’) are the ones fronted by Jim James. Within all of his work James’ remit seems to be twisting his nation’s traditional music into new, interesting, weird forms.

The press release that accompanies New Multitudes boldy states that it’s “not just another trite and traditional acoustic regurgitation of back porch blues” which, y’know, it isn’t. But that doesn’t mean that these renditions aren’t trite, just that they’re not trite in that way. And perhaps hearing these songs performed on a back porch would be preferable to hearing them like this. New Multitudes is an album that sounds like it was a lot of fun for the band to record but, well, you had to be there.

4/10

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