Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion: Wassaic Way

guthrie irion
Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion
Wassaic Way
(RTE 8 Records)
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

This collaboration of roots pop married couple Guthrie and Irion with Jeff Tweedy and Patrick Sansone continues the bond of the Wilco musicians with the Guthrie family first established with 1998 and 2000’s Mermaid Ave. projects. It was then that Tweedy took Woody Guthrie’s unpublished lyrics and set them to new music. The approach here is different since Guthrie and Irion are more aligned with roots pop than rugged folk. Nowhere is that more clear than on the opening track; the playful, jaunty singalong “Chairman Meow” (not surprisingly the name of a cat), the disc’s first single. The album—the duo’s third– is divided between sunshiny, often West Coast styled strummy pop and a darker, more meditative style, the latter likely heightened by the influence of the Wilco guys’ more eclectic, experimental nature. There isn’t much here musically to connect the dots between the more earthy sound of Guthrie’s dad Arlo or grandfather Woody. But the sheer songwriting quality and the craft of the production that occasionally adds strings, pianos, and extra reverb is clearly the work of musicians who take their jobs seriously, even in the most romantic moments of “Wherever She Is It’s Spring.”

Irion displays his inner John Lennon on “Probably Gone” and the twosome finds a deep swamp groove highlighted by creepy strings and guitar dissonance on “9 Out of 10 Times.” The slight funk undercurrent that runs through “Not Feeling It” and the 70s country pop whimsy of the incongruously titled “Lowest Ebb”  inject spirited elements into an album that captures Guthrie and Irion’s remarkable melodic strengths and marries them to Tweedy and Sansone’s sympathetic and beautifully shaped production.