Billy Bragg

Help Save the Youth of America EP: Live and Dubious

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The "value for money" debate that preoccupied '80s audiences and labels made the EP become a relevant format (especially in the U.S., where it had lain dormant since the '50s and '60s). Budget-priced EPs (or "mini-albums") became a convenient way of plugging the gap between two- and three-year album-release cycles. Help Save the Youth of America EP: Live & Dubious, then, captures Bragg's growth from hectoring one-man troubadour to multi-faceted roots music explorer. Not surprisingly, the unadorned moments work best: "Chile Your Waters Run Red Through Soweto" is an a cappella tour de force, while "To Have and to Have Not" remains a rousing indictment of the decade's oily uber-villain, the yuppie. (Bragg didn't preach to the converted, either, judging by the countless open-mic night versions heard by this writer.) The title cut is also energetically done (though it loses something without the shimmering acoustic guitars that buoyed the studio version).

Time has inevitably dated the hard-charging slant of "Days Like These," with its references to the El Salvadoran civil war and Ronald Reagan not being constitutionally permitted to seek a third presidential term. A similar datedness hangs over "Think Again"'s imperative to consider the fear of nuclear holocaust in light of the former Soviet Union's World War II civilian casualties. On the other hand, a rootsy, countrified "There Is Power in a Union" swings in a way that seemed unimaginable on the stripped-down turf of Bragg's debut, Life's a Riot With Spy vs. Spy, while hinting at the more expansive palette of Workers Playtime. Nowadays, the immediate gratification of digital downloading has made the EP irrelevant outside of indie circles. Bragg's attempt is a minor entry to his lengthy career, but completists probably won't mind.

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