Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker, and Yim Yames have produced a fitting album to include in this year’s centennial celebration of Woody Guthrie’s birth with their interpretation of unpublished Guthrie lyrics on New Multitudes . This volume focuses on Woody’s early songwriting while living in southern California; a moment that provides lyrics that are intimate and personal, weary but not discouraged, and focused. Musically, it is clear that Farrar, Johnson, Parker, and Yames chose to maintain continuity with previous interpretations of Guthrie lyrics, like Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue Volumes I and II, and lovers of those albums will surely enjoy New Multitudes.
For Woody listeners who enjoy his first person accounts of love and longing, New Multitudes may be uniquely enjoyable; on ‘Chorine my Sheba Queen’ he shares, “Chorine, Chorine, Chorine / Your eyes are like my sky / Wherever you go, I want you to know / Its there my love will fly”. The close-up, echoing vocals and sparse musical treatment given to these lyrics are in nicely in sync with the emotional content of the lyrics, a mood not dissimilar to Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’.
These things being said, Woody’s steadfast optimism, skepticism, and we-can-do-it-together spirit shines through even in this early period. ‘Hoping Machine’ shares “Don’t let anything knock your props out from under you / always keep your mind clear let your plans come out of mistakes / these are the plans that nothing can tear down / made out of things that have already been torn down”.
Anders Parker noted in an interview that much of the album was cut live off of the studio floor, which can be heard in the thoughtful, skillful, and natural delivery of each track. In sum, New Multitudes is an insightful, reflective, and welcome addition to a growing collection of contemporary interpretations of Woody Guthrie’s work.
Words: Paul Kellner