Billy Bragg Billy Bragg Volume 1 [Box Set]

[Yep Roc; 2006]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: anti-folk, indie rock, punk folk
Others: Woody Guthrie, Elvis Costello, Pete Seeger, Robyn Hitchcock

Billy Bragg has slowly evolved into a working class legend. He was in the low-rent punk band Riff Raff that broke up after a few years with just a few singles to show for it. He soon joined the Army before buying his way out of the service. Bragg returned to the stage armed with the street smarts of punk and the folkie hunger for revolution. Marrying two distinct genres, Bragg turned folk on its ear and brought punk to its knees with sharp lyricism and upbeat melodies, and he's been at it for more than two decades. Unfortunately, most are only familiar with Bragg's work thanks to the Mermaid Avenue albums. And while he poured much of his heart and soul into those Woody Guthrie lyrics — what any admirer would do for his hero — those albums with Wilco were just brief glimpses into Bragg's wealth of work.

Enter the box-set treatment. Centering on Bragg's beginnings, Yep Roc has given us all a chance to take a trip back in time and find Bragg at his most raw. Through four albums and EPs, three bonus discs, two DVDs, and a book full of lyrics, Bragg is transformed from idealistic icon into punk-folk pioneer. Bragg wasn't the first to fuse the similar ethos of punk and folk, but his unique blend of two seemingly different genres can't be ignored. The first time "The Milkman of Human Kindness" blitzes the eardrums with raucous acoustic guitar and heartfelt lyrical magic, it's impossible to deny Bragg's musical ingenuity. Life's a Riot With Spy vs. Spy is the shot of punk energy in the folk-based Irish Car Bomb. Its fuel, however, isn't derived from the political lyrics that have been the cornerstone of Bragg's success. Instead, much of Life's a Riot With Spy vs. Spy deals with young love. But these aren't overwrought pledges of faithfulness. "Richard" unravels as Bragg's own modest interpretation of The Police's "Roxanne," while "Busy Girl Buys Beauty" will become an anthem for any young homemaker stuck in a love rut.

The volume's second disc, Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, offers a glimpse into Bragg's early flirtation with polarizing topics amid the everyday subjects of love and longing. As with any sophomore album, both the lyrics and music have matured, though neither lose any power. While Bragg's focus is still love, he grounds the songs in the everyday malaise of life. It isn't until Talking With the Taxman About Poetry that the set begins to tackle Bragg's infamous editorials. Favorites such as "There is Power in a Union" and "The Home Front" set their sights on political matters close to Billy's heart. But Bragg doesn't abandon his gift for the ballad, he transforms it. Gone are the love letters and wide-eyed hopes of youth, replaced with the cold, hard realities of "Greetings to the New Brunette" and "Honey, I'm a Big Boy Now." The box set wraps up with The Internationale EP, the first glimpse of Bragg in his entire political splendor. A call-to-arms for all of those afflicted and afraid of the world's direction, The Internationale finds Billy truly comfortable with his political voice for the first time.

It was wise to concentrate on the remastered treatment and hours of bonus music and film, but that's not what the box set is truly built on. Billy Bragg is more than a mere "musician"; he's a man with a conscience. His stories, his insights, and his messages are simply indelible. They're the stories of his heroes and countrymen. They're the tales of the downtrodden and forgotten. Everyone is always waiting for the next Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Robert Johnson, or Peg Leg Sam. Perhaps picking up this box set will get those of you still searching for a musical hero to open your eyes and see what you've been missing.

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