KLEZMATICS – Wonder Wheel
When Woody Guthrie, the godfather of American folk music, died, he left the lyrics to hundreds of songs, along with some pretty big boots to fill. The author of such songs as “This Land is Your Land,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Jesse James,” and more, Guthrie** The Klezmatics’ Wonder Wheel is less of an album than an attempt to cram their (collectively) twelve feet into those boots—twelve songs with new music composed from his lyrics. [how is this a mountain to climb?] [maybe some introduction or context to what it’s like or why it’s significant to people who don’t know about folk music?]
This is the second time the concept’s been tried, making this disc a sequel of sorts to Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue II, a pair of albums released in 1998 by Billy Bragg and Wilco with the same premise. [repetitive] Wilco and Bragg might have seemed like an odd choice to carry on Guthrie’s legacy—one’s barely American, the other is barely folk—but the two albums were a critical and commercial success, selling more copies than any of Guthrie’s albums ever had.
Now, at the bequest of Guthrie’s daughter, the Klezmatics try the same experiment. Does it work?
The answer is—sort of. The opening song, “Come When I Call You,” sets Guthrie’s words to a rollicking, sea-shanty rhythm, a little haunting and more than a little old-school. Lead singer Lorin Sklamberg’s vocals are note-perfect, and the whole group seems determined to make every minute of Wonder Wheel worth listening to. “Gonna Get Through This World” is eerie and sad, [should be ; ] “Mermaid’s Avenue” swings in a way that the ’20s never really did, but we always imagined it to — think of the TV show Brooklyn Bridge, or any of those Neil Simon-induced movies.
But everything feels a little too perfect. Till We Outnumber ’Em, Ani Difranco’s Guthrie tribute that featured, among others, Bruce Springsteen and the Indigo Girls, was seemed largely unrehearsed, just a bunch of folks on acoustic guitars singing old Guthrie songs by heart. On Wonder Wheel, everything feels too polished, the lyrics treated with too much care—as though every moment has been meticulously planned, and the lyrics orchestrated along with the music instead of just being belted out. [I don’t understand – isn’t all music “lyrics set to notes along with the music”? What’s wrong with music being “meticulously planned”?]
Guthrie and his longtime collaborator Pete Seeger were famous for abducting other people’s songs and adding their own verses. You won’t find any of that here, despite the concept of the album— [should be new sentence] The lyrics make Guthrie’s Mermaid Avenue hangout feel like a jolly, clean place, not the lowbrow, working-class rumble of a party that it probably was. Songs like “Headdy Down” and “Goin’ Away to Sea” are sanitized and polished, the arrangements so perfect that they feel hollow, despite the Klezmatics’ best intentions; [should be new sentence] These are songs written about sailors and soldiers and penniless drunks, not Broadway theater-goers and armchair-klezmer Upper East Side yuppies.
But there’s a lot about Wonder Wheel that’s undeniably good. The Klezmatics make these songs their own, putting in klezmer violin segues and step-dancing rhythms in places where they shouldn’t fit, but always do. The clarinet-and-violin jams are executed masterfully, in a way that makes every moment feel like a Coney Island carnival sideshow. Not like the voice of the streets, but a voice to take us away from them. [I like that.] thanks!
Maybe, even, like Woody would’ve wanted.
(Originally published in PresenTense)