It's been over 15 years since Uncle Tupelo broke up, and playing compare and contrast with Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy's subsequent work has ceased to be a rewarding pastime, but it's hard not to be amused or intrigued with the nature of this particular project. In 1998, Tweedy and his band Wilco teamed up with Billy Bragg to create Mermaid Avenue, an album in which they composed and performed music set to unpublished lyrics by legendary songwriter Woody Guthrie. Mermaid Avenue was a critical success that helped solidify Wilco's reputation as one of the best bands to emerge from the Americana movement, and since then, the Guthrie estate has worked with artists as diverse as the Klezmatics, Rob Wasserman, and Corey Harris to marry Woody's words to new melodies. In 2011, Farrar was approached to create an album around more of Guthrie's unseen verses, and just as Wilco worked with Billy Bragg, Farrar has teamed up with three other musicians with a rootsy bent to write and record New Multitudes. Along with Farrar, New Multitudes features Yim Yames (less pretentiously known as Jim James of My Morning Jacket), Will Johnson (of Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel), and Anders Parker (of Varnaline and a previous collaboration with Farrar, Gob Iron), and not surprisingly, each track reflects the personality of the man who sang it and set it to music, despite the consistent themes and rhythms of the lyrics. Yames sounds like the rumpled romantic of the group on tunes like "Talking Empty Bed Blues" and "My Revolutionary Mind" (the latter of which finds Woody asking the fates for a good Leftist woman), Johnson brings a road-worn sincerity to "No Fear" and "Chorine My Sheba Queen" and a sense of tragedy to "VD City," and Parker's guitar work is as potent and as eloquent as the lyrics on "Angel's Blues" and "Old L.A." As for Farrar, the force of his vocals and angular melodies is so strong that he manages to strip Guthrie's personality almost entirely from his tunes -- the cadences, wordplay, and homespun intelligence of Guthrie's lyrics shine through the nooks and crannies of Yames, Johnson, and Parker's performances, but Farrar sounds like he's singing Son Volt outtakes, enough so that without reading the liner notes, you'd never guess one of the greatest and most idiosyncratic American songwriters of the 20th century had a hand in them. Mermaid Avenue captured many facets of Woody Guthrie's creative and personal life in its songs, but always with a very human sense of joy and commitment. New Multitudes, on the other hand, aims for a darker and more introspective tone, and when Farrar takes center stage, he unwittingly reveals his Achilles' Heel -- no matter who he works with, he insists on dominating the musical conversation, and when his co-writer has been dead since 1967, there's not much hope for any real balance.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming