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Billy Bragg and The Blokes
England, Half English


Music as a means to raise social consciousness is noble, important, and strikingly powerful when done well. The trick is doing it well. Dylan pulled it off, so did The Clash, Billy Bragg had his moments too. Bragg has spent the bulk of his career spinning clever tales of disenfranchisement, championing the working class, decrying war and corruption -- in several cases even managing to squeeze a political slant into already memorable love ballads.

Part of the six year lag between his last album, William Bloke, and his latest, England, Half English, he spent in collaboration with Wilco, tailoring music to lyrics written by Woody Guthrie -- Guthrie who performed throughout the 40s with a guitar marked with the words this machine kills fascists dead. The final product, Mermaid Avenue Volumes 1 and 2, earned Grammy nominations, and arguably should have taken the prize in one if not both cases.

England, Half English finds Bragg involved in another collaborative effort - this time sharing songwriting responsibilities with his new back-up band, The Blokes. Unlike the Mermaid Avenue albums where he supplied the music to Guthrie's lyrics, Bragg puts words to music crafted largely by The Blokes. Likely the Recording Academy will skip over this one when choosing next year's Grammy finalists.

On the single, "NPWA" (No Power Without Accountability for those of you not affiliated with England's Labour party), Bragg laments the global power structure that leaves the masses at the mercy of the politicians and corporate fat cats who "wield the sword." Lyrically think corporate-agitator Michael Moore at a WTO rally, musically think Addicted to Love-era Robert Palmer.

The Blokes transpose a rowdy ethnic melody - borrowed from an Algerian folk song --over Bragg's tale of cultural diversity on the title track "England, Half English," bludgeoning an already weak song with overpowering symbolism. Bragg sings with an affectation that is part carnival hawker, part Transylvanian lounge singer. The clunky rhymes and sing/speak delivery do little to illustrate cultural unity and more to spotlight the creative divide between Bragg and his Blokes.

"Take Down The Union Jack," recalls Bragg's early days when he first took up the cause of bygone folksters with an electric guitar, a healthy chip on his shoulder, and an ax to grind with England. Bragg leaves his listeners puzzling over the unanswered question: "What could be more British than here's a picture of my bum?" The thought of Bragg's countrymen uniting under a picture of his ass provides one of the few interesting diversions on an album that evokes the stereotypical blandness of British fare.

Listening to England, Half English I was reminded of an evening spent in a crowded auditorium during the 2000 presidential race. At the podium, a disheveled and road-weary Ralph Nader spouted off on labor reform, health care, and environmental policy, making valid points, but doing so in a way that lacked eloquence and bordered on clumsy. It seemed, almost, as if he'd been talking the same game so long he'd forgotten the point, but remembered the words to the message.

-- Daniel Schulman








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