(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

CD Review - Billy Bragg, Mr. Love and Justice

Billy Bragg is an iconic presence for left wing folk music. He's a socialist folk singer with punk rock roots. These days, his stripped down arrangements on some songs are the nod to punk. Musically, he tends to have more pop and classic R&B sensibilities with folk instrumentation. In some ways, he's written around four songs or so: political and class-based screeds, broken relationship songs, almost broken relationship songs, and deeply sentimental songs. This is not to say I don't like him -- indeed, I like him a lot. His pop tunes are catchy; his lyrics are generally fairly clever, with more complex phrasing. I'm a little more left leaning, so most of his politics work for me to some extent, although he can be a little heavy handed. He's really a very interesting guy, though, and I recommend you give him a listen regardless of your politics. My favorite album of his is Worker's Playtime, but Mr. Love and Justice is relatively solid.

This album has a number of highs, lows, in-betweens, and "huh?"s. Let's start with the highs.

The album leads off with I Keep Faith, which falls under the "deeply sentimental" category. This is classic Bragg, with a sound right off of Worker's Playtime: guitar dominated, with a little bit of organ, well crafted pop, and nice dynamics with a big drop out on the last verse. A great start to this album.

M For Me is one of my favorite songs on the disc. The stripped down version I've linked to doesn't quite do it justice because it's missing the skiffle band sound of brushes on snare and other instrumentation. Still, the lyrics are beautifully crafted and clever:
Take the M for "me"
And the Y for "you"
Out of "Family"
And it all falls through.
The title track goes back to the opening, with a classic Bragg sound and a killer descending bass line. Its another failed relationship song that could have come off any of his albums. This is really what he does best.

On the political side, the best song is O Freedom, as in "O Freedom, what liberties are taken in thy name", which comes from the chorus. This walks through a rendition scenario, conveying the unfairness and scariness of it all and it brings up the point that these kind of policies only give our enemies a sense of moral outrage and strength. This works because it's not too heavy handed or overly sentimental. It's a good song to make you think without browbeating you into anything.

The R&B/gospel song, Sing Their Souls Back Home, is another well done political piece with some sweet slide guitar work. It really sounds familiar, though.

On the bad side (and it's not really very bad), The Johnny Carcinogenic Show fails for me because it's a little overwrought and too self conscious for its own good. It's an anti-smoking rant, demonizing the cigarette companies, which are too easy a target. Don't get me wrong, the tune is catchy but little touches like the background vocal chant of "poverty is toxic" weaken it.

Similarly, Something Happened is another weak song. It has a late 60's rock sound. The music rocks and there are good dynamics but the lyrics are odd and more than a little awkward in this short song about the difference between love and lust. This has an intentional political feel that, for some reason, reminds me of Soviet architecture. Maybe it's the lack of subtlety.

I won't write much about the middling songs: The Beach is Free, You Make Me Brave, etc. They're all decent songs, but not stand out for me.

Finally, there's one really big oddity. I Almost Killed You sounds like Morrissey at a Celtic jam. The instrumentation is odd, with hand claps high in the mix and the lyrics are a touch too ironic for Morrissey, but there you go. Needless to say, this falls into the "relationship problems" bucket. I don't dislike it but I do get a touch of cognitive dissonance when I hear it.

All taken together, this is a very listenable Billy Bragg album. Even after a number of listens, it's still in rotation on my iPod. Sip on an English mild at the pub while people complain about Wall Street (to give you a little bit of class consciousness) to get in the mood.

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