England, Half English

Billy Bragg / Billy Bragg & the Blokes

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England, Half English Review

by Jack Rabid

Bragg is clearly enjoying himself, collaborating with his backing band after two decades of running the show on his own. That doesn't mean that England, Half-English is a great record; in fact, it's the least of all of Bragg's proper LPs. As if too conscious of just being one of the Blokes (which include estimable keyboardist Ian McLagen of Small Faces eclat, and Lu Edmonds, who goes back to the Damned's 1977 Music for Pleasure, and everyone from Spizz to Public Image Ltd. since), Bragg has suddenly turned into the leader of some kind of over-jaunty pub rock bar band. Sometimes it's good fun, as when the ex-punk singer (his brief old days in Riff Raff) goes all the way into this 1974-1976 immersion, and morphs into the late Ian Dury (a noted pub rocker himself, pre-solo, in Kursaal Flyers) on the title track. It might be the first time a man with such a thick, working-class Essex accent has deliberately employed an even thicker, even more blue-collar deep-cockney twang! But the results can be middling.

That said, since it's only his second LP of original material in 11 years (how odd, from such a talented and prolific writer), after two respected music-for-Woody Guthrie-lyrics LPs, it's hard not to find Bragg and band's enthusiasm infectious. True, this is a shadow of the brilliant Bragg that worked himself into such a fever for five bracing LPs in seven years, culminating in the first rate Worker's Playtime, and his zenith, 1991's Don't Try This at Home -- and then opted out of the grind. But he is still one of the true clever, human, funny, and razor-direct lyricists, and his topics remain committed, no matter the clatter behind him. Whether addressing the other side of immigration dead-on, from the immigrant's perspective (as if to anticipate the travesty in France months later, with the racist "close the borders" National Front candidate finishing second!), on the title track, the moving, forlorn "Distant Shore," and most bluntly on the bitter, fuck-xenophobia "Take Down the Union Jack," or articulating the real problem of unchecked globalization (lost in the images of protester-police clashes) on "NPWA" -- no power without accountability -- Bragg is clearly tackling thorny issues most pop personalities wouldn't risk the slightest stance on. What it means to be British on the one hand, and a global citizen on the other, clearly is on his mind, and it's even reflected in the world music flavor of (admittedly the worst track) "Baby Faroukh" and the ska-light of "Dreadbelly." Plus, there are a number of cuts where Bragg returns to what he's actually much better at: making his own music without much outside musician influence. The actually solo "Distant Shore," "Some Days I See the Point," and especially the vintage 1984-1987 style Bragg of "Take Down the Union Jack," would have fit comfortably on the aforementioned LPs or the lone one in between, 1996's William Bloke. Were all artists and songwriters this thought-provoking (provoking? demanding!), empathetic, and so full of direct human spirit.

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