Volume 1 – Billy Bragg
Yep Roc 2600
Billy Bragg may be best known as the collaborator with Wilco on the Mermaid Avenue albums, which took the unused lyrics of Woody Guthrie and turned them into fleshed out songs. If those two releases raised interest in him, your chances of discovering his music quickly lost momentum because Braggs solo releases, particularly his early work, became hard to find. Volume 1 offers a repackaged chestful of Bragg goodies: two albums, three EPs, and three discs of bonus material. Also, its two DVDs present him in his most natural element, as a charismatic live performer/storyteller.
Braggs music career runs like the bastard child of Woody Guthrie and Joe Strummer. Energized by punk rock and with a sense for social justice and working class values that conveniently were in step with The Clashs Strummer and Guthrie, its as if Bragg took to heart the slogan on Guthries beat up acoustic guitar, This Machine Kills Fascists.
Relying on his gifted sense of melody, sharp verbal interplay (i.e. A New England) and electric guitar playing, 1983s Lifes A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy shows that Bragg came out of the gate fully formed. The Milkman of Human Kindness opens this breathless blast of talent with the compassion that runs through his ongoing concern for humanity and his own run-ins with St. Valentine. The bonus CD has its share of oddities (the questionable use of a drum machine on Strange Things Happen and Love Lives Here) as well as standouts (A13, Trunk Road to the Sea, which finds him reconsidering its value by including the number in subsequent concert settings).
Turning the guitar up and looking directly towards the tumultuous times of the day, Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, subtitled A Puckish Satire on Contemporary Mores, finds Bragg making his way through the difficult sophomore effort. At times it sounds more like the punk rock album that this solo act neglected to make the first time around. Even Love Gets Dangerous sounds like an intentional(?) nod to The Jam, the successful British act that mixed social observations with Mod and Soul song structures. On Brewing Up Bragg sounds a little battered by the experience but he still maintains frequent touching and pointed moments (i.e. the tale of infidelity, The Myth of Trust and one of longing, The Saturday Boy).
The Saturday Boy and, at albums end, A Lover Sings gives an indication of what Braggs musical future holds, wherein he embraces Motown and the blues without sacrificing his minimalist approach. On Talking With The Taxman About Poetry, producer Joe Boyd shines his rough edges into a set of diamonds. Its an all-out perfect blend of his unending bond with the working stiff and search for the girl of his dreams.
Volume 1 holds on to his next full-length effort, Workers Playtime for Volume 2. Instead, it includes the unrelenting political numbers on The Internationale EP. Its release slowed down any commercial inroads Bragg made on previous albums. Being so blatantly mindful of world politics, even when it runs contrary to shifting units, demonstrates that Bragg has cojones as big as bowling balls. Then again, mixing politics in anything other than folk circles isnt exactly a great career move that gets you that mansion on the hill.
Credit Braggs songwriting skills for making his favorite subjects (politics, society and the opposite sex) interesting over 80 tracks. Its too bad that the packaging on Volume 1 doesnt do him or the historic artifact that is a box set justice. A nice photo collage as cover art and the seven CDs, two DVDs within its cardboard package offer a lot but wheres an essay or track-by-track comments to illuminate what was taking place in the world that spurred Bragg on to create this material? Even the notes on each release are sparse, leaving questions such as where in Russia was the Live & Dubious EP recorded? Why was Bragg there and what was the experience like?
While the strength of Volume 1 comes from Bragg the artist, a little written enlightenment should be a must on Volume 2. Lacking that this time around makes the decision to include it in your collection more a matter of the state of your bank account than, sadly, what should be a major endorsement from this longtime Bragg fan.