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True Brit

Billy Bragg and the Blokes
England, Half English (Elektra)

For 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.

England, 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.

—David Greenberger

Patti Smith
Land (1975-2002) (Arista)

While 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.

—Carlo Wolff

The Stratford 4
The 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.

—Kirsten Ferguson

Howlin’ Wolf
The Real Folk Blues/More Real Folk Blues (MCA)

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 more earlier.

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.

—D.G.


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