Friday, January 24, 2020

Spotlight On Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg photo courtest of CD Presents
Billy Bragg photo courtest of CD Presents
Billy Bragg Select Discography

Life’s A Riot with Spy vs Spy (Go! Discs UK/Utility Records, 1983)
Brewing Up with Billy Bragg (Go! Discs UK/CD Presents, 1984)
Talking With the Taxman About Poetry (Go! Discs UK/Elektra Records, 1986)
The Peel Sessions EP (Strange Fruit Records UK, 1987)
Worker’s Playtime (Go! Discs UK/Elektra Records, 1988)
The Internationale (Utility Records UK/Elektra Records, 1990)
Don’t Try This At Home (Go! Discs UK/Elektra Records, 1991)
The Peel Sessions Album (Strange Fruit Records UK, 1991)
Live Bootleg [with the Red Stars] (self-released CD, 1995)
William Bloke (Cooking Vinyl UK/Elektra Records, 1996)
Bloke On Bloke (Cooking Vinyl UK, 1997)
Mermaid Avenue [with Wilco] (Elektra Records, 1998)
Mermaid Avenue Tour [with the Blokes] (self-released CD, 1999)
Reaching To the Converted (Cooking Vinyl UK/Rhino Records, 1999)
Mermaid Avenue, Volume II [with Wilco] (Nonesuch Records, 2000)
England, Half-English [with the Blokes] (Cooking Vinyl UK/Elektra Records, 2002)
Bill’s Bargains [live] (self-released CD, 2002)
Riff Raff: The Singles 1977-1980 (self-released CD, 2002)
Must I Paint You A Picture? The Essential Billy Bragg (Cooking Vinyl UK/Elektra Records, 2003)
Live At the Barbican (self-released CD, 2002)
Mr. Love & Justice (Cooking Vinyl UK/ANTI-, 2008)
Fight Songs (self-released CD, 2011)
Mermaid Avenue, Volume III [with Wilco] (Nonesuch Records, 2012)
Tooth & Nail (Cooking Vinyl UK/Dine Alone, 2013)
Shine A Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad [with Joe Henry] (Cooking Vinyl UK, 2016)
Bridges Not Walls (Cooking Vinyl UK, 2017)
Best of Billy Bragg at the BBC 1983-2019 (Cooking Vinyl UK, 2019)

Billy Bragg photo by Philip Wigg, courtesy Yep Roc Records
Photo by Philip Wigg, courtesy Yep Roc Records
Discography information courtesy of www.billybragg.co.uk

Find Billy Bragg albums on Amazon.com

Billy Bragg Mini-Bio

British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg is best for his folk-rock protest songs and social activism and although he’s been able to find more than a cult American audience, he’s enjoyed modest commercial success in the U.K. Too often dismissed by critics as an unrepentant lefty, Bragg’s songs display a much deeper intellect and humanity than mere shouted rhetoric, his material often infused with melody and lyrically traveling to the edge of art where romance and politics intersect.

Bragg developed an interest in poetry while in school and first picked up the guitar as a teen, often practicing with his neighbor and future bandmate Philip Wigg (“Wiggy”). Bragg’s initial musical influences were the Rolling Stones and the Faces, while Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel would influence his early songwriting efforts. At 20 years old, Bragg saw the Clash play in London on the band’s ‘White Riot Tour’ and again at a ‘Rock Against Racism’ concert a year later, events that would have a strong impact on his career and political philosophy.

Bragg formed the punk band Riff Raff with his friend Wiggy in 1977, recording a series of D.I.Y. singles and performing live for a couple of years until breaking up in 1980. Bragg wandered through a series of jobs, including working at a record shop, and even joined the British Army. After finishing up several months of basic training, however, he decided that the military wasn’t his sort of career and, for the sum of £175, he bought himself out of the service and returned home. Bleaching his hair, Bragg began performing his punk-inspired folk songs as a solo artist, opening shows for other artists and busking around London under the name ‘Spy vs Spy’, a choice inspired by the comic created Cuban expatriate Antonio Prohías for Mad Magazine.

Billy Bragg's Life’s A Riot with Spy vs Spy
Recording a demo tape, Bragg got no response from the labels he shopped it to. By pretending to be a TV repair man, he got into the office of Charisma Records’ A&R exec Peter Jenner, who liked what he heard. Although Charisma was unable to sign the artist at that time, Bragg got a music publishing deal with Chappell & Co and recorded a series of demos that would subsequently be released by Charisma subsidiary Utility Records in 1983 as Life’s A Riot with Spy vs Spy. The album included Bragg’s song “A New England,” which would become a Top 10 U.K. hit when recorded a year later by singer Kirsty MacColl. When Charisma was bought out by Virgin Records, Jenner was let go and became Bragg’s manager. Former Stiff Records’ press manager Andy McDonald, who had formed his own Go! Records label, bought Life’s A Riot with Spy vs Spy from Virgin and reissued it in late 1983.

Go! Records would be the home for Bragg’s sophomore effort, 1984’s Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, which peaked at #16 on the UK albums chart on the strength of songs like the satirical “It Says Here,” the romantic “Love Gets Dangerous,” and the anti-war screed “Island of No Return.” England’s New Music Express magazine ranked the album at #6 on its “Albums of the Year” list for 1984. During this time, Bragg became known as a left-wing activist, performing benefit shows and attending political rallies. He helped form “Red Wedge,” a socialist musician’s collective that included the Jam’s Paul Weller. Bragg’s Between the Wars, a four-song EP, was released in 1985 and peaked at #15 on the UK singles chart. Inspired by the UK miners’ strike, the EP was explicitly political, and proceeds from its sale were donated to the striking miners’ fund.

Billy Bragg's Talking With the Taxman About Poetry
Bragg experienced his first North American tour in 1985, opening for Echo & the Bunnymen with his old friend Wiggy as his tour manager. He would release his breakthrough album, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry in 1986, which became his first Top 10 charting LP in the UK. While earlier recordings primarily featured just Bragg and his guitar, this third LP included studio contributions by singer Kirsty MacColl, guitarist Johnny Marr of the Smiths, and keyboardist Kenny Craddock of Lindisfarne, among other musicians. Bragg enjoyed his first Top 30 hit single with the album’s “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” while a second single release, “Greetings To the New Brunette,” would only rise to #58 on the charts.

Bragg’s fourth album, Worker’s Playtime, was released in 1988. Produced by the legendary Joe Boyd, who had previously worked with artists like Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Pink Floyd, and R.E.M. the album also included backing musicians like Bragg’s friend Wiggy on guitar, guitarist Martin Belmont (Graham Parker & the Rumour), and journeyman drummer Micky Waller (Jeff Beck, John Mayall). The mini-LP The Internationale followed in 1990; released by his manager Jenner’s short-lived Utility Records label, it was recorded in protest to Go! Records’ signing of a distribution deal with multi-national giant PolyGram.

Billy Bragg's Don’t Try This At Home
Released in 1991, Don’t Try This At Home, recorded in the shadow of the build-up to the Gulf War, offered a mix of more commercial pop songs (“Sexuality,” co-written with Johnny Marr) and political material (“North Sea Bubble,” “Rumours of War”). Produced by Grant Showbiz (The Smiths, The Fall), with whom Bragg would work on better than a dozen albums, Don’t Try This At Home included contributions by Michael Stipe and Peter Buck of R.E.M. and would subsequently peak at #8 on the UK albums chart. Bragg had re-signed with Go! Records for a million pound advance, so the album was afforded aggressive marketing, music videos, and a grueling 13-month tour after which Bragg paid back the remainder of his advance for his release and rights to his back catalog of music.

After taking a five-year hiatus to help his partner raise their son, Bragg signed with the artist-friendly UK indie Cooking Vinyl for the release of 1996’s William Bloke, which was the artist’s fifth Top 20 charting album. A year later he released Bloke On Bloke, a collection of outtakes and remixes from his previous album that only rose to #78 on the UK chart. Bragg was about to undertake a major career move, however…Nora Guthrie, the daughter of American folk legend Woody Guthrie, asked if Bragg would put some of her father’s unrecorded lyrics to music. The result led to Mermaid Avenue, a critically-acclaimed 1998 album recorded with Americana band Wilco and singer Natalie Merchant (of 10,000 Maniacs) that would earn a Grammy® nomination.

Billy Bragg's Mermaid Avenue
Mermaid Avenue, Volume II was released in 2000 and a third collection in 2012, along with Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions, released to mark Guthrie’s centennial. An argument about the mixing of the first album created a rift between Bragg and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, which led to the singer putting together a new band, the Blokes (including legendary keyboardist Ian McLagan of the Faces), to tour in support of the albums. The rise in right-wing nationalism in Great Britain inspired Bragg’s England, Half-English album, which was named for a book by British writer Colin MacInnes. Recorded with the Blokes and released in 2002, England, Half-English tackled such sticky issues as racism and xenophobia in the UK. Bragg published his first book, The Progressive Patriot, in 2006, expressing his belief that British Democratic Socialists could reclaim patriotism from right-leaning nationalists.

In 2007, on the fifth anniversary of Joe Strummer’s death, Bragg founded the non-profit Jail Guitar Doors organization. Taking its name from a Clash song, the organization supplies musical instruments to prisons and encourages prisoners to face their problems in non-confrontational ways. An American chapter of Jail Guitar Doors was launched in 2009 by the MC5’s Wayne Kramer. Also named for a book by MacInnes, Mr. Love & Justice was recorded with the Blokes and released in 2008, peaking at #33 on the UK albums chart. Bragg began branching out beyond music, playing a small role in the 2008 film A13: Road Movie and later wrote new lyrics for “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which was later performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Bragg was involved with the 2010 play Pressure Drop at the Wellcome Collection museum and library, providing new songs and performing with his band. That year he was also asked to curate the Leftfield state at the Glastonbury Festival, which he has continued in subsequent years.

Billy Bragg's Tooth & Nail
Bragg returned to the studio in 2013, recording Tooth & Nail with musician and producer Joe Henry, the album exploring the Americana genre and becoming his most commercially-successful work since Don’t Try This At Home, peaking at #13 on the UK chart. The album led to Bragg being honored with the “Trailblazer Award” at the first Americana Music Association UK event in London in February 2016 and the “Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award” later that year at the Americana Music Association US event held in Nashville. In between these accolades, Bragg released a collaboration with Joe Henry titled Shine A Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad, which was recorded during a trip by train between Chicago and Los Angeles. The record was modestly successful and would become Bragg’s ninth Top 30 charting album in the UK.

Bragg published his second book in 2016; a history of the British skiffle movement titled Roots, Radicals and Rockers, the book traces the genre from its beginnings in the 1950s back to American folk, blues, and jazz music. A year later, Bragg released the six-song EP Bridges Not Walls with the new political song “Full English Brexit.” Record Collector magazine described the EP as “a solid gold collection of an always inspiring singer-songwriter finding inspiration in the actions of others.” In 2019, Bragg released the two-disc, 19-song collection The Best of Billy Bragg at the BBC 1983-2019 which offers a career-spanning retrospective of the singer-songwriter’s on-air performances. Bragg also published his third book, The Three Dimensions of Freedom, in 2019, a political collection that posits that accountability is the antidote to authoritarianism.

Billy Bragg's The Best of Billy Bragg at the BBC 1983-2019
Throughout his lengthy career, Billy Bragg has fought to bring humanism back to British society in the face of growing social injustice and right-wing nationalism. Both with his personal activism and through his art, Bragg has continued to shine a light on the plagues of fascism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia which has often brought him in conflict with far-right groups like the British National Party (DNP). Undaunted, Bragg continues to work towards “the great leap forwards.”




Archive Review: Billy Bragg’s Worker’s Playtime (2006 reissue)

Billy Bragg’s Worker’s Playtime
“If you’ve got a blacklist, I want to be on it…”

By the time of the 1989 stateside release of Worker’s Playtime, punk-inspired folkie Billy Bragg had found an unlikely measure of commercial success in the UK and had developed a loyal cult audience in the United States. Whereas Bragg’s first two albums, Brewing Up With Billy Bragg (1984) and Talking With the Taxman About Poetry (1986), featured many politically-charged songs delivered from the singer’s left-leaning perspective, they also offered up intelligent romantic commentary such as “Levi Stubb’s Tears” and “Love Gets Dangerous.” It is the tension of this dichotomy – the soapbox rabble-rouser shouting political rhetoric and the hopeless Celtic romantic singing love songs – that drives Worker’s Playtime.

Billy Bragg’s Worker’s Playtime


Working for the first time with noted producer Joe Boyd (Nick Drake, Fairport Convention), Bragg pretties up many of the songs on Worker’s Playtime with finely tuned melodies and lush instrumentation, a stark contrast to his sparse previous work. The angry young man of Bragg’s early EPs and debut album has, a half-decade later, mellowed somewhat, allowing the romantic songwriter to come to the foreground. The result is a superb collection of material like “She’s Got A New Spell,” the melancholy “Valentine’s Day Is Over” (featuring just Bragg’s voice, guitar and a piano), and the rollicking, self-effacing “Life With The Lions.”

The most striking moment here, however, is “Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards,” the song building from Bragg’s lone piano-backed vocals to a swelling crescendo of choral voices and a grand finish. It’s the defining moment of Worker’s Playtime, an affirmation of the singer’s social consciousness. Even so, the song displays Bragg’s growing disenchantment with politics as well as his wry sense of humor. Although proclaiming that “revolution is just a T-shirt away,” Bragg asks, “will politics get me the sack?” In the end, Bragg’s surmises “start your own revolution and cut out the middle man,” evoking Dylan’s “don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters….”

She’s Got A New Spell


Worker’s Playtime proved to be commercially questionable, fans and critics alike seemingly confused by the album’s tentative nature and artistic contradictions between the “new” Billy Bragg (stronger production, more instrumentation) and the “old” (guitar and vocals). In reality, the album’s sublime strength lies entirely in its uneasy nature, Worker’s Playtime showcasing Bragg’s evolution from street busker to self-aware musician. Somewhere between album number one and number three, Bragg realized that there might actually be a future to this music thing.

The material on the bonus disc of this excellent Yep Roc reissue – studio demos and outtakes – supports this critical perspective, showing Bragg experimenting with different ways to express his music. The demo of “She’s Got A New Spell,” with the Attractions’ Bruce Thomas and the Jeff Beck Group’s Mickey Waller, evinces a rock aesthetic while “The Short Answer” sounds like low-key Graham Parker, complete with the Rumour’s Martin Belmont on guitar. Other material, such as a stark, powerful cover of the Jam’s “That’s Entertainment” and an uncharacteristically soulful live reading of Tim Hardin’s classic “Reason To Believe” display different facets of Bragg’s talents.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line


In retrospect, Worker’s Playtime is a solid collection of songs that served as an invaluable stepping stone to Bragg’s work on albums like Don’t Try This At Home as well as his collaboration with the band Wilco on Mermaid Avenue. It is in these grooves that you can hear Bragg becoming comfortable in his role as artist and musician, the album an important part of the artist’s overall catalog and an influential release in its own right. (Yep Roc Records, 2006 reissue)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog

Buy the CD on Amazon.com: Billy Bragg’s Worker’s Playtime


Sunday, January 19, 2020

Archive Review: David Olney's The Stone EP (2012)

David Olney's The Stone EP
Nashville’s David Olney is one of the city’s truly underrated musical treasures…forget Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw and all that Music Row pap, ’cause while they may be selling more records they’re not, at heart, true storytellers. They simply take clichéd words cranked out by some Music City songwriting assembly line and imbue the material with a modicum of personality. By contrast, Olney is an old-school wordsmith in the Townes Van Zandt tradition, mixing folk and blues with roots-rock in spinning tales that shoot straight for the heart of the human condition.

Olney’s second mini-album, The Stone – following last year’s Film Noir EP and released in time for the Easter holiday – is a six-song EP providing a unique accounting of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Olney revisits three older songs on The Stone, providing his previous creations with new interpretations, adding three new songs to complete his insightful personal take on “the greatest story ever told.” What makes Olney’s version here so mesmerizing is that each song takes a different lyrical view of Christ’s resurrection, the story told, in turn, by a con man, a donkey, a murderer, and a soldier.

David Olney’s The Stone EP


David Olney
David Olney photo by John Halpern, 2006
The Stone opens with “Jerusalem Tomorrow,” Sergio Webb’s classical-styled guitarplay weaving a beautiful tapestry of sound behind Olney’s rich, sonorous spoken word vocals. This is the con man’s tale, originally appearing on Olney’s 1989 album Deeper Well and later recorded by Emmylou Harris. An intricate first-hand tale of Christ’s ministry, it’s a prelude, of sorts, of the story to follow. Another older song, the largely-forgotten “Brays” from Olney’s 1995 album High, Wide and Lonesome, offers the perspective of a lowly donkey who feels like a stallion after carrying a humble Jesus on his back. “Blessed am I of all creatures, blessed am I of all beasts,” sings the donkey in Olney’s haunting voice, the lyrics accompanied by producer Jack Irwin’s ethereal orchestration, which creates a fascinating musical atmosphere.

One of the EP’s new compositions, “Brains” is a funky blues romp fueled by Olney’s growling vocals and fluid harmonica playing. Told from the perspective of a policeman looking to find out “the brains of the operation” behind Jesus and his disciples, with a sly reference to Judas on the side, it’s an unlikely but effective way to recount the story, and probably the most playful song on the EP. David Roe’s subtle bass lines and Irwin’s nuanced percussion lay down a solid foundation beneath Olney’s voice, the lyrics calling to mind every cop-show cliché you’ve ever seen on TV, delivered with tongue only partly in cheek. Seemingly referring to the last supper, “Flesh and Blood” is a more traditionally folk-oriented performance, with Olney’s droning guitar-strum providing a counterpoint to his warm vocals, a bit of Woody Guthrie-styled harmonica complimented by Webb’s piercing guitar tones.

The last of the old tracks, the amazing “Barabbas,” originally appeared on Olney’s 1999 album Through A Glass Darkly. A central character in the Christ narrative, the thief Barabbas had his death sentence commuted by Pontius Pilate while Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. Astride Webb’s strident classical fretwork, Olney tells his rambling tale of Barabbas’s imprisonment with Jesus and subsequent freedom, the thief later questioning his release and traveling across the land to tell his tale which, in itself, represents a form of spiritual redemption. Irwin lays in mariachi-styled horns in places, their odd dissonance adding nicely to the overall vibe of the story while Webb’s intricate and beautiful guitar playing is simply breathtaking.

The Stone ends with “A Soldier’s Report,” the tale of Christ’s resurrection told in the somber voice of a confused and troubled soldier present at the crucifixion and charged with guarding the tomb of Jesus. Above Webb’s insistent and sometimes discordant fretwork, with a few cacophonic blasts of horn thrown in, Olney unfolds the soldier’s shame at discovering that Christ’s body had disappeared, and his subsequent misgivings about the future that the mysterious event portends. It’s a powerful performance, Olney closing out The Stone with an open ending that invites further musical examination.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line


David Olney is not a Christian songwriter, per se, nor does he frequent religious themes often, but when he does address matters of faith, he does so with the same intelligence and in the same thought-provoking manner as every song he pens. With The Stone, Olney has successfully wrestled with difficult religious mythology, adding his artistic voice to the history of the tale with no little majesty and grace. (Deadbeet Records, released March 20, 2012)

Review republished courtesy of Blurt magazine...


Friday, January 17, 2020

Archive Review: Billy Bragg's Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy (2006)

Billy Bragg's Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy
When originally released in 1983, the seven-song EP Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy earned Billy Bragg a reputation as a historical curiosity. After all, punk rock was still hanging on while new wave and Goth had begun to excite U.K. audiences. Bragg, on the other hand, was a wandering English troubadour, singing of love and justice and freedom…definitely an anachronism in the modern, trend-driven, media-savvy world.

At that time (as now), if you weren’t a beautiful actor/model/coverboy-girl with a set of safe, bland, over-produced songs, you need not apply. Bragg didn’t fit into that mold, relying instead on talent, attitude and sheer guts in his attempt to make life-changing music.

Billy Bragg’s Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy


Somehow, Bragg succeeded. Never a commercial artist, but always an influential one, his creative emphasis was on the lyrics, especially with his earliest work, which eschewed niceties such as production values and lush instrumentation in favor of the word, the voice and a guitar. The result, on these seven songs, was simply devastating. A talented wordsmith with a taste for the bizarre turn of the phrase, Bragg had a sharp eye for the absurdities of modern life and relationships, and a satirical wit that sinks a razor-sharp rapier into the jugular of the subjects he aims at. Bragg’s political material voiced the most radical worldview since the early days of the Clash (Joe Strummer a major influence on Bragg’s songwriting), the songs made even more effective by the sparse musical accompaniment. Bragg’s love songs are both emotional and bittersweet, never maudlin, and infected with a contagious romanticism more common to the folk genre than to punk rock.

In the thirty-three years since its original release, Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy has aged well, songs like “A New England” and “The Busy Girl Buys Beauty” benefiting from the timeless style of Bragg’s writing and performances. The Yep Roc Records reissue of the EP features the original seven-song EP on one disc, and a second “bonus” disc of unreleased rarities, alternative versions and a great cover of John Cale’s “Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend.” Personally, I would have liked to have seen the label include the four songs from Bragg’s Between the Wars EP here, to flesh out the first disc somewhat. However, this is a minor cavil, and since Bragg personally oversaw the Yep Roc reissue series, it was his choice, not mine…

The Reverend’s Bottom Line


In 1985, when the vinyl version of Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy hit these shores, I wrote that Bragg had “a great artistic future,” and that although he would never become a “big star,” he would always be an “interesting and dedicated performer.” Through the years since, Bragg has never proved me wrong. (Yep Roc Records, 2006 reissue)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Billy Bragg’s Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy


Archive Review: Billy Bragg's Talking With the Taxman About Poetry (2006)

Billy Bragg's Talking With the Taxman About Poetry
“But if you think all I do is press words other people use into my service Comrades, come here, let me give you my pen and you can yourselves write your own verses!” – Victor Mayakovsky, 1926

By the time of the 1986 release of Talking With the Taxman About Poetry, Billy Bragg’s self-professed “difficult” third album, the artist had become the poet laureate of the musical left. A tireless troubadour of socialist leanings, Bragg placed more fervor, energy, passion and emotion in a single phrase or turn of a word than most artists are capable of mustering throughout an entire album.

After a couple of critically acclaimed British EPs and a full-length indie album, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry represented Bragg’s major label debut in the United States. Although Bragg had softened some of the rough edges that endeared audiences to his early work, the lyrical arguments presented on Bragg’s third album proved no less passionate, his penchant for radical polemics no less zealous.

Billy Bragg’s Talking With the Taxman About Poetry


Whereas Bragg’s early songs featured only his thickly-accented vocals and an accompanying guitar, Taxman was fleshed out with a few additional strings, a horn or two, and even an occasional background harmony. The music remained stark, simple and effective, Bragg’s folk-punk musical style serving to underline the importance of his lyrics. First and foremost, Bragg is a poet; a hopeless romantic with a revolutionary bent (not unlike Byron), whose lyrics deal almost exclusively with love and politics – not an entirely inappropriate combination, for one inevitably involves the other. Bragg aims his pen mercilessly at the governments, institutions and the societies that would oppress the seemingly unflagging human spirit.

Bragg champions the worker as a noble creature, envisions romantic love as the Holy Grail and, at times, jabs so deep in the heart with his lyrics and often times brutal lyrics that he is able to invoke the tears/passion he himself obviously feels. The recent Yep Roc Records two-disc reissue of Talking With the Taxman About Poetry includes the entire album, remastered and spiffed up for the digital age, along with a bonus disc of rarities and inspired covers. Songs like Gram Parson’s “Sin City,” Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees,” and Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears” reveal the depth and scope of Bragg’s musical influences and display the artist’s charm and joy in music-making.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line


Even after 20 years and better than half a dozen album releases, Billy Bragg remains an acquired taste. His music has never been a commercial commodity, although he has enjoyed a hit song or two along the way. As this critic wrote at the time of this album’s release, Bragg “is one of the most important artists to enter the rock arena in years – perhaps the most political folksinger since young Bobby Dylan strode into Greenwich Village with a guitar in hand.”

Bragg remains a man with a message, a poet of uncanny vision and a socially concerned artist whose work remains as fresh and relevant today, in the days of Bush and Blair, as it was during the Reagan/Thatcher era two decades ago. Much of today’s “folk revival,” the acid-folk music of artists like Devendra Banhart, owes a great debt to Bragg, an artist who, inspired by the music of Joe Strummer, would go on to create inspiring music of his own. (Yep Roc Records, 2006 reissue)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Billy Bragg’s Talking With the Taxman About Poetry


Friday, January 10, 2020

Archive Review: Nils Lofgren's Wonderland (2007)

Nils Lofgren's Wonderland
There will be absolutely no argument about this, people – Nils Lofgren’s “Across the Tracks” should have been a mondo-huge radio hit. Period. I’ll hear no debate, no dispute, no qualifying…MONDO-HUGE radio hit! I’ve got the charts and pie graphs and seismograph readings to prove my point…and if that doesn’t convince you (wink, wink), I also have a ten-pound sledge and an itchy trigger-finger. Yeah, I thought so…

By the time of the 1983 release of Wonderland, Nils Lofgren had enjoyed status as a rock-n-roll wunderkind for over a decade, beginning with his brief tenure as part of Crazy Horse backing Neil Young, and continuing through his work with cult favorites Grin. Nils had half-a-dozen major label solo recordings under his belt by this time, but he was also on his second record label in only eight years, and had been unable to break free of the increasingly crowded rock guitarist pack. Lofgren seemed doomed to “also-ran” status for the remainder of his career, forever fated to being a critic’s darling. Critical acclaim doesn’t put beans on the table, however; you have to sell some records at some point in time.

Nils Lofgren’s Wonderland


Ultimately, when standing at the crossroads, Lofgren chose to put his career on the back-burner and take up Bruce Springsteen’s offer to join the E Street Band after the departure of popular guitarist Steve Van Zandt. The decision to take a walk down E Street made Lofgren a wealthy man, but one has to wonder if he has ever thought about what might have happened had he chosen to continue pursuing the brass ring on his own. Through the years, critics have pointed their collective fingers at various reasons for Lofgren’s failure to break through, from lack of label support and the unflinching ignorance of radio to the typically shallow production of the artist’s albums and even to Lofgren’s own lack of personality.

Wonderland was the last album that Lofgren recorded before jumping on the whirlwind Born In the U.S.A. tour with his New Jersey pal Bruce, and it stands tall among his best work. Contrary to what many pundits assert, Wonderland proves to this critic that Lofgren has no shortage of personality. A varied and heartfelt collection of material that was well-rehearsed and basically captured live in the studio, the album provides Lofgren with the guitar showcase that he had always deserved.

The aforementioned “Across the Tracks” is an energetic tale of star-crossed lovers, Lofgren’s spirited vocals complimented by a heavy drumbeat, an undeniably catchy melodic hook, great Romeo & Juliet lyrics and some damn fine guitar work. Edgar Winter throws in barely-audible backing vocals. Unlike some of the other songs on Wonderland, “Across the Tracks” doesn’t suffer from period production – this is a timeless rocker that plays across the decades. Kudos to Andy Newmark for his killer stompin’ on the drum kit…

Into the Night


Ole Nils switches gears with “Into the Night,” a moody, atmospheric semi-ballad that displays Lofgren’s abilities as a crooner, his passionate lyrics matched with a lush arrangement and subtle six-string flourishes. “I Wait For You” is a larger-than-life, Springsteenesque mid-tempo rocker with stellar fretwork, notes flying everywhere as the drums ring clear like a jackhammer, Kevin McCormick’s throbbing bass tossing the boys a lifeline to pull them out of this emotional quicksand. The title cut is a syncopated, slightly Latin-flavored tune that reminds me of NYC; with backing vocals by the underrated, can’t-outstay-her-welcome-in-my-house Louise Goffin, the song is an enchanting romp through, well, Wonderland

Wonderland was produced by Lofgren with his long-time bandmates McCormick and Newmark, and the work they did was ‘magnifico,’ accentuating their instrumental strengths and Nils’ solid songwriting chops while pushing Lofgren’s sometimes too-slight vocals to new heights. “Confident Girl” is a great example of the chemistry between the three, Lofgren’s guitar blazing with laser-like intensity while his vocals speak of a confidence that was sometimes lacking from his earlier work. Throw in some nice three-part harmonies and the one-two rhythmic knockout punch and “Confident Girl” could have easily been the second hit single from the album. Goffin also chimes in on the reggae-splashed “Everybody Wants,” Lofgren channeling his inner-Garland (i.e. Jeffreys) on this warm, infectious tune.

That’s not to say that there’s not a little chaff among Wonderland’s many pearls. “Deadline” might be a great song live, but as captured in the studio, it just stinks up the joint. The guys fell prey to the “sound de jour” and mucked up a song with an otherwise scorching guitar solo with new wavy synth punctuation that sounds hopelessly out-of-date a quarter-century later. Plus, Newmark’s delicious bass-heavy drumming is tossed aside in favor of a tinnier, repetitive, ‘radio-friendly’ snare drum beat that would induce a migraine in even the heartiest of listeners. The entire song sounds not dissimilar to the dreck produced by a lot of major label bands at the time, all trying to get their stuff on MTV. Ditto for “Lonesome Ranger,” a meager ballad that wastes Carly Simon’s perfectly good backing vocals in the creation of a funky, plasticized grab for airplay; there’s nothing here to differentiate it from a dozen other, slicker period bands that don’t have a tenth of this trio’s talent.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line


Overall, Wonderland signals the beginning of an evolution in Nils Lofgren’s creative direction. He would make one more very good (and similar) solo album in 1985’s Flip before taking the next six years away from recording. When Nils came back to the studio, he had matured as both an artist and a guitarist. He had toured the world as part of the biggest, baddest instrumental ensemble that has ever graced a stage in the E Street Band, taking part in marathon live shows that would test the talents of any musician.

By the time of 1991’s Silver Lining, Lofgren had better than two decades under his belt and his vision was clear, his influences fully absorbed. Although Lofgren’s creative output has been infrequent in the 24 years since Wonderland, resigned mostly to live albums and performances, there is no doubt that this album stands as a high water mark for the guitarist’s astounding career, an often overlooked album well deserving of another listen. (American Beat Records, released April 3, 2007)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Nils Lofgren’s Wonderland

Archive Review: The V-Roys' Just Add Ice (1996)

The V-Roys' Just Add Ice
Looking on the back of their debut album, Just Add Ice, Knoxville’s V-Roys look like one of those modern martini retro-lounge acts that are all the rage on the coasts. Clad in suit and tie, the band looks like nothing so much as bored advertising executives looking for a few cheap thrills set to a soundtrack of cocktail clatter and cheezy muzak. A closer look at the bar top reveals the truth, however – the guys are slugging back cold Buds, the historic breakfast of barroom rockers and honky tonk heroes. All appearances aside, the V-Roys are a rock ‘n’ roll band, a status easily supported by Just Add Ice.

Raised on rock and hard country up in the hills of East Tennessee, the V-Roys have had the leisure to develop as they please, without the influence of ridiculous trends or peer pressure, a fact highlighted by the songs on Just Add Ice. At times, the band rocks like nobody’s business, the taut guitar line opening “Sooner or Later” leading into a rollicking, defiant song of joyful freedom while “Wind Down” sounds like a 1960s-styled garage band creation, echoed vocals punctuated by a killer guitar riff and an unrelenting mix. “Pounding Heart” is a folkish tale of unrequited love that sports a countryish musical tinge, “Kick Me Around” shows just enough elements of modern rock and historical relevance to earn the band critical accolades and possible commercial acceptance.

Just Add Ice showcases the V-Roys’ diverse and unique musical identity, an inspired hybrid of rock, country, and blues. An enormous debut, Just Add Ice vaults Knoxville light years ahead of Nashville in the intra-state musical rivalry. While far too many bands in the Music City are (still) trying to become the next hard rock heroes, the V-Roys sneak in and grab a label deal, producing a fine album solely on the basis of talent and originality. (E Squared Records, released September 10, 1996)

Review originally published by R Squared music zine, 1996


Friday, January 3, 2020

Short Rounds: The Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dana Gillespie, Manfred Mann, Mick Ronson & A-Squared Records (2020)

The Band's The Band
New album releases in 150 words or less…

The Band – The Band (Capitol Records)
Celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Band’s visionary, groundbreaking sophomore album with this deluxe two-disc reissue. Although the untarnished, pioneering Americana of the original LP, with classic tunes like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” and “Across the Great Divide” should be enough to pull you in, a slew of bonus tracks in the form of alternate takes and instrumental mixes round out the first disc. The second CD offers rough mixes of the Band’s appearance at Woodstock 1969, released here for the first time ever, a magnificent performance comprised of eleven classic songs. Another seven bonus tracks comprised of studio outtakes and alternate versions fills out the CD, but it’s the live stuff that you’ll listen to again and again, making the set an essential addition to the library of any fan of the Band, Bob Dylan, or American music overall. Grade: A+   BUY!

Creedence Clearwater Revival's Live at Woodstock
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Live at Woodstock (Craft Recordings)
By the time Woodstock happened in August 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival had released three LPs in little more than a year and had enjoyed a handful of Top 10 singles. One of the festival’s higher-profile acts, CCR nevertheless demurred from appearing in the Woodstock movie or soundtrack albums. Fifty years later, Live at Woodstock marks the first release of the legendary band’s hour-long set from the festival, the eleven tracks here including some of the most revered classic rock songs of all time. The band rips through gems like “Born On the Bayou,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Proud Mary,” “I Put A Spell On You,” and “Suzie Q” like flaming dervishes. Much like the Band’s Woodstock above mentioned performance, why did it take so damn long to release this show? The CD offers better sound quality than the vinyl release, but the raucous performance stands on its own regardless of format. Grade: A   BUY!

Dana Gillespie's What Memories We Make: Complete MainMan Recordings 1971-1974
Dana Gillespie – What Memories We Make: Complete MainMan Recordings 1971-1974 (Cherry Red Records U.K.)
Blue-eyed soul singer/songwriter Dana Gillespie’s What Memories We Make is a two-disc set that features the powerhouse vocalist’s two RCA Records albums recorded while she was hanging around David Bowie and was managed by Tony Defries’ MainMain. This includes her bluesy, critically-acclaimed 1973 RCA debut Weren’t Born A Man and its rapid follow-up, 1974’s Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle. Both LPs have long been out-of-print but in-demand with collectors due to Bowie’s involvement and contributions of superstar session players like Rick Wakeman, Eddie Jobson, and Bobby Keys. Throw in some alternative takes and demo recordings from the rare 1971 BOWPROMO promotional-only album and you have a complete document of an important era in the artist’s career. Rediscovery of Gillespie’s immense talents continues apace – aside from What Memories We Make, Rev-Ola Records label also recently reissued the singer’s first two albums for Decca Records on CD as London Social Scene. Grade: A   BUY!

Manfred Mann's Radio Days
Manfred Mann – Radio Days, Volumes 1-4 (Umbrella Records)
I’m gonna cheat here and include all four of these two-disc BBC collections of the British rock ‘n’ roll legends in one review. Curated and authorized by the band, these are absolutely essential for any Manfred Mann fan – volume one features the Paul Jones era, volume two features singer Mike D’Abo – and both sets include the band’s hits and rarities alike from a five-year period circa 1964 to 1969, great songs like “Pretty Flamingo,” “If You Gotta Go,” and “Mighty Quinn” as well as band interviews. Radio Days, Volume 3, representing the band’s ‘Chapter III’ incarnation, is a little too-much jazz-skronky for my tastes, but it’s the road that took Mann and cohorts to Radio Days, Volume 4 featuring the Earth Band, “Get Your Rocks Off,” and a different slant on the same ol’ prog-rock. At a minimum, at least three of these volumes deserve a place in your library. Grade: A   BUY!

Mick Ronson's Only After Dark: The Complete MainMan Recordings
Mick Ronson – Only After Dark: The Complete MainMan Recordings (Cherry Red Records U.K.)
I’ve written of Mick Ronson’s talents before, and the lack of respect he’s proffered as one of the great rock guitarists of the 1970s. Perhaps it’s the dearth of solo material available that has prevented a re-estimation of Ronson’s status an as innovator rather than a mere sideman, an injustice that the four-disc Only After Dark box should right. Documenting every note Ronson recorded for manager Tony Defries’ MainMan company, the set includes both of the guitarist’s excellent 1970s-era solo records (1974’s Slaughter On 10th Avenue and 1975’s Play Don’t Worry), both enhanced with a slew of live tracks and demos. The other discs feature previously-unreleased recordings (including some of Guam, Dylan’s backing band on the Rolling Thunder 1975 tour) and live performances showcasing Ronson’s creative depths. Only After Dark is reasonably-priced, too, allowing listeners to re-discover the extraordinary guitarist trusted by legends like David Bowie and Ian Hunter. Grade: A   BUY!

An A-Squared Compilation
Various Artists – An A-Squared Compilation (Third Man Records)
The Reverend lived in Detroit circa 1979-81 and witnessed the city’s high-octane rock ‘n’ roll bands of that era in person. The real action took place during the decade of the ‘60s, though, and many of the best of Detroit’s rockers could be found on A-Squared Records, formed by producer Jeep Holland and named for his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. This two-disc vinyl reissue from Motor City native Jack White’s Third Man Records expands upon a 2008 CD compilation, offering up two-dozen electrifying tracks by bands like rockers the Scott Richard Case (SRC), blue-eyed soul legends the Rationals, guitar hero Dick Wagner & the Frost, the Prime Movers (with Iggy Pop), Stoney & the Jagged Edge and others, and features updated liner notes by music historian Alex Palao. Not all of these tracks were released by Holland’s revered label, but they all crackle with pure rock ‘n’ roll energy. Grade: A   BUY!

Previously on That Devil Music.com:
Short Rounds, December 2019 (Holiday Gift Suggestions): Cindy Lee Berryhill, Black Pumas, Alice Cooper, Robyn Hitchcock & Andy Partridge, Handsome Dick Manitoba, The Muffs, Harry Nilsson, The Rosalyns & Bobby Rush 
 

Short Rounds, April 2019: Steve Earle, Nils Lofgren, Lone Justice, Sour Ops, Robin Trower & Jimmie Vaughan


The talented Dana Gillespie
The talented Dana Gillespie

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

New Music Monthly: January 2020 releases

Howdy and Happy New Year to y'all! The holidays have passed, a new year has dawned, and the record labels will launch another season of trying to separate we music lovers from our hard-earned coin. January doesn't offer a lot of new releases, but it's quality over quantity with new albums from folks like blues-rock guitarist Tinsley Ellis, punk-rock legends Anti-Flag, Southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers, British art-rockers Wire, and the enigmatic ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, among others. Plus long-awaited reissues from Marshall Crenshaw and Paul Kelly. Enjoy!

Release dates are subject to change and nobody tells me when they do. If you’re interesting in buying an album, just hit the ‘Buy!’ link to get it from Amazon.com...it’s just that damn easy! Your purchase puts valuable ‘store credit’ in the Reverend’s pocket that he’ll use to buy more music to write about in a never-ending loop of rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy!

Paul Kelly's Songs From the South 1985-2019

JANUARY 10
Paul Kelly - Songs From the South 1985-2019   BUY!

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's X: The Godless Void And Other Stories

JANUARY 17

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead - X: The Godless Void And Other Stories   BUY!
Anti-Flag - 20/20 Vision   BUY!
Marshall Crenshaw - Miracle of Science   BUY!
Holy Fuck - Deleter   BUY!
Of Montreal - UR FUN   BUY!

Wolf Parade's Thin Mind

JANUARY 24
Black Lips - Sing In A World That's Falling Apart   BUY!
Breaking Benjamin - Aurora   BUY!
Wire - Mind Hive   BUY!
Wolf Parade - Thin Mind   BUY!

Tinsley Ellis's Ice Cream In Hell

JANUARY 31
Destroyer - Have We Met   BUY!
Drive-By Truckers - The Unraveling   BUY!
Tinsley Ellis - Ice Cream In Hell   BUY!
Squarepusher - Be Up A Hello   BUY!
Theory of A Deadman - Say Nothing   BUY!
Ben Watt - Storm Damage   BUY!

Marshall Crenshaw's Miracle of Science

Album of the Month: Marshall Crenshaw's Miracle of Science is the first in a string of long-overdue reissues of the power-pop genius's 1990s-era Razor & Tie label releases. Miracle of Science, originally released in 1996, marks a return to Crenshaw's earliest albums with the artist providing most of the instrumentation on an underrated selection of original tunes and a few choice covers. If you missed this one the first time around, here's another chance to get Crenshaw's Miracle of Science on either CD or vinyl...