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Billy Bragg, Vol. 2

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Album Review

The first four years of Billy Bragg's recording career (1982 to 1986) were a blur of record releases that established the froggy-voiced "Bard from Barking" as perhaps the most powerful and engaging political songwriter to emerge since the "folk scare" of the 1960s. From 1988 on, however, Bragg had the difficult task of living up to his own legacy, and that proved to be no small task; as he stylistically outgrew the rough electric guitar and vocal textures of Brewing Up with Billy Bragg and Life's a Riot with Spy vs. Spy, Bragg didn't display the same immediate skill at "proper" record-making and took his time growing comfortable with the craft of the studio, and while he never ran out of things to write and sing about, as the 1980s faded into the 1990s his songs lost a certain amount of the sharp wit and keen focus that was second nature on his early records. (It also became clear the material was coming a lot more slowly, to boot.) This period of Bragg's career is documented on Volume 2, the second box set compiled from Bragg's back catalog, featuring expanded versions of four albums: 1988's Workers Playtime, 1991's Don't Try This at Home, 1996's William Bloke, and 2002's England, Half English. While none of these albums can be called bad, very little of what's featured on this set matches the consistent quality of the records compiled on the similar Volume 1 box, and even the best of the records featured here (Don't Try This at Home) falls slightly short of the wit and fire of Bragg's salad days. That said, while one has to pick and choose to find the pearls on Volume 2, they are certainly there, and Bragg has been generous with the bonus material on this set. Each album is accompanied by a bonus disc of demos, outtakes, single sides, and the like, and each is full of pleasant surprises for the completist (though they never quite equal the quality of the original albums) and offer an interesting look at how these albums came together. Volume 2 also comes with a book featuring song lyrics, credits, and an essay from Bragg's longtime manager, Peter Jenner, as well as a DVD that includes a show by Bragg and his band the Red Stars taped for the BBC at London's Town and Country Club in late 1991, as well as highlights from a spring 2006 gig in Bragg's hometown of Barking, Essex, with Bragg joined by former Faces keyboard man Ian McLagan. Each of the expanded albums included in Volume 2 has also been released individually, and some fans may prefer to pick and choose rather than buy the entire set, but as a whole, Volume 2 documents Billy Bragg as he struggles to balance musical and emotional maturity with the passion of his political ideals; the results may not be as engaging as Volume 1, but there's still a fascinating story to be found in this collection.


Born: 20 December 1957 in Barking Town Hall, London, Englan

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Finding inspiration in the righteous anger of punk rock and the socially conscious folk tradition of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg was the leading figure of the anti-folk movement of the '80s. For most of the decade, Bragg bashed out songs alone on his electric guitar, singing about politics and love. While his lyrics were bitingly intelligent and clever, they were also warm and humane, filled with detail and wit. Even though his lyrics were carefully considered, Bragg never neglected...
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