After Elektra signed Billy Bragg to his first major-label deal and released Talking with the Taxman About Poetry in 1986, the label decided to do a clean-up job on his back catalog and compiled Back to Basics, which combined the material from Bragg's first three records -- Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, and Between the Wars -- into one two-record set (now available on a single CD). The first seven cuts, from the Life's a Riot EP, are Billy Bragg at his most basic; recorded in an afternoon with no overdubs, the audio is rough and Billy's electric guitar often threatens to drown out his voice, but the performances are game, and Bragg was already writing top-notch songs like "A New England" and "The Milkman of Human Kindness." The next 11 songs were originally released on Bragg's first LP, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg; while the sound is still spare and stark, the engineering is a good bit cleaner than on Life's a Riot, and Billy fleshed out his one-man-with-a-guitar approach to include the occasional vocal and/or guitar overdub, and even guest musicians on two tracks (though the trumpet on "The Saturday Boy" and the organ on "A Lover Sings" hardly count as orchestration). Bragg's performances are even stronger, displaying a charm that didn't quite make it through the sloppy sound of his debut, and his love songs resonated more strongly while his political numbers cut deep (especially "It Says Here" and the harrowing "Island of No Return"). Back to Basics closes with three somber political numbers that first surfaced on Bragg's Between the Wars EP, released when tensions over trade union strikes in the U.K. were at their height -- one original ("Between the Wars") and two vintage labor anthems. While the tone is downbeat, the performances are strong and compassionate. While Back to Basics fudges a bit with the sequence of the original material, and there's no reason why both of Bragg's recordings of "It Says Here" couldn't have been included, it's still a strong collection of some of Billy Bragg's most engaging work.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming