Bragg and the Blokes
Half English (Elektra)
nearly 20 years, Billy Bragg has been performing and recording
his heartfelt songs of the downtrodden and disenfranchised.
Overtly, even stridently political, Bragg began his career
with the frugality and directness of a man and his strummed
guitar. It wasn’t a very big leap for him to step into the
Woody Guthrie role on 1998’s Mermaid Avenue, which
found him and Wilco setting Guthrie’s previously unutilized
lyrics to music. The other effect of this pairing was that
it opened Bragg’s eyes to the magic of a sympathetic band.
With Wilco unable to tour, he assembled one of his own, the
Blokes. Looking toward the future back in the ’80s, one would
not have seen Bragg fronting a band, let alone a world-class
outfit capable of such supple and powerful music.
Half English is the first full album by Billy Bragg and
the Blokes, who previously cut tracks for compilations, and
a live disc that was sold at their shows. The first song starts
with the piano of Ian McLagan, who spent the ’70s carousing
across America with the Faces. Their rough-and-tumble prowess
is a hallmark of this band as well, which is solidly anchored
by bass player Simon Edwards and drummer Martyn Barker. Adding
mysterious textures around Bragg’s rhythm guitar are Ben Mandelson
and Lu Edmonds on various stringed instruments (bouzouki,
barizouki, resozouki—is that everything from the zouki family?—dobro,
bajo sexto, crumbush, tarbush, tenorbush, and regular electric
guitars). These two previously deployed their arsenal in the
free-ranging, faux-ethnic band 3 Mustaphas 3.
Bragg’s songs continue along familiar lines (the plight of
workers, class disparities, etc.), this time also focusing
on issues of identity—the title is taken from a 1961 essay
by British writer Colin MacInnes, who was describing the way
that English popular culture in the ’50s had become markedly
defined by American influence as well as the postwar influx
of immigrants. Bragg’s most obstreperous tune on this disc
is “NPWA,” a tough sell as the first single with the chorus
“No power without accountability.” And his most poetic is
the album-closing “The Tears of My Tracks,” which finds its
protagonist broke and selling all of his records, but full
of sly confidence and unshakable hope, delighting in the sun
filling his empty room. Many of the songs have their music
credited jointly to the whole band, and the camaraderie isn’t
mere socialist pie-sharing; it’s genuine aesthetic truth.
This album is a result of the entwined enthusiasms of Billy
Bragg and the Blokes.
Patti Smith’s Land (1975-2002) is an essential archive
of a key figure in modern rock, what you like of it will depend
on how open you are toward a woman whose best material—the
lyrical “Come Back Little Sheba,” the furious “Pissing in
a River,” the incantatory (and perhaps overattenuated) “Birdland”—pushes
the rock envelope into the literary, occasionally pretentious
realm. The first of these two discs is more predictable, because
Smith’s fans essentially chose the tunes, including, of course,
her only Top 20 hit, “Because the Night.” The second, whose
tracks Smith selected, consists of largely unreleased cuts,
including the classic “Piss Factory” (a working-class, rock
& roll epic) and the powerful “Higher Learning.”
A prime mover in early punk, Smith is Chicago-born, New York-savvy,
oracular, demagogic and open-hearted. She doesn’t attempt
to reconcile the opposites within her. On disc, they encompass
her tender version of Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” the anger
of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Nigger,” the utopian anthem “People Have
the Power” and the despairing, rueful “Dead City.” Smith rocks
and poeticizes hard, though she rarely swings. She has outlived
friends, lovers and family to become an icon of feminist resilience.
How fitting that Susan Sontag write the liner notes for this,
Smith’s first retrospective.
Revolt Against Tired Noises (Jetset)
Although the title of the debut album from San Francisco’s
the Stratford 4 suggests an insurrection of sorts against
the stagnancy in modern rock music, The Revolt Against
Tired Noises represents nothing quite so radical
as a musical revolution. Rather, Revolt is more of
a revisitation, harkening back to a decade or so ago, when
college radio stations erected altars to British bands like
My Bloody Valentine—who in turn built cults around fuzzed-out
guitars and lush, dreamy guitar pop.
The opening track, “Rebecca,” summons that same early-’90s
marriage of dense guitar haze, murky lyrics and a catchy,
jangle-pop interior. The song’s delicate, lilting melody and
the singer’s naive benediction to a crush eyed from afar are
pleasant enough. However, it’s the dense guitars—whether crashing
in orchestrated waves or droning beautifully like passing
cars on a distant highway—that make for worthy listening.
Taken as a whole, Revolt never quite fulfills the promise
of its opening track, but there are plenty of moments to recall
the glory days of ’90s shoe-gazing rock. On the album’s centerpiece,
“Window Open,” layers of forlorn slide guitar echo around
a drugged-out, disaffected refrain. As the song’s swirling
guitars gain in momentum, they take on all the glorious cacophony
of an airplane accelerating up a runway. The album’s epic
closer, “All That Damage,” similarly hitches a slight, sparse
love song to grand and lonesome guitar soundscapes.
Real Folk Blues/More Real Folk Blues
Howlin’ Wolf is one of the most distinctive voices in music.
(Calling him one of the most distinctive voices in blues is
too limiting.) Born Chester Burnett in 1910, he began his
recording career at the age of 41, having moved from Mississippi
to West Memphis. A subsequent move to Chicago in the ’50s
launched his career in earnest, via the Chess label. The two
albums that comprise this CD—The Real Folk Blues and
More Real Folk Blues—were released in the mid-’60s,
and were drawn from recordings dating back to a decade or
The “folk blues” moniker is not altogether accurate, as these
are blistering electric performances. The title was primarily
the label’s marketing ploy to appeal to the then-booming folk-blues
revival, with its attendant festivals and university tours.
(Chess released albums with the same names by Muddy Waters,
John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson.)
The two dozen performances on this essential disc define what
is now commonly called Chicago blues, most of which today
has become formulaic and genre-bound, never hitting these
staggering heights. An incredible array of singers owe the
roots of their identity to Howlin’ Wolf; though Captain Beefheart
jettisoned standard blues structures for Dadaist soundscapes,
he could not have coalesced into his voice without the Wolf.