Billy Bragg – Reaching to the Converted

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 5)

I think B-sides compilations are definitely worth buying for artists that you love; you will almost always find something cool that makes you fall in love with the artist all over again. You will also come away with the bewilderment at the artist’s judgment, wondering how first-rate songs could have been shunted aside in favor of lesser material that made albums or even worse, were released as singles. And you will learn a little about their own tastes and loves through the covers that inevitably populate such releases. This album is no different.

What I Think of This Album

This is a 100% inessential compilation for anyone but the most dedicated fans. Collecting B-sides, unreleased tracks, and other songs going back to 1985, much of this front-loaded album is forgettable. But, the ears want what the ears want.

Perhaps most notable among the offerings is the previously unreleased and janglicious “Shirley,” which is “Greetings to the New Brunette” except with a significant increase in Johnny Marr (the Smiths), who is credited with “everything else” to Bragg’s “vocals.” Also here is the single version of “Accident Waiting to Happen,” which is more lush and less indignant than the album version. Single “The Boy Done Good” is sweet and warm, and I am sure his wife loves it; this was co-written with Marr, and unfortunately fades out just as he starts to do some interesting things.

Among the B-sides, the standout is the clever and catchy “Bad Penny,” which deserved to be on an album; Kirsty MacColl provides backing vocals here against a Marr-esque backdrop of guitars (which are instead played by lifelong friend and Riff Raff bandmate Wiggy). Also excellent is organ-driven “Sulk,” which details the end of a toxic relationship. For reasons I can’t explain, I really like the title “Ontario, Quebec and Me,” which is a delicate love song conveyed in a crooning falsetto. “Rule Nor Reason” is definitely worth a listen, with a great harmonium part from frequent collaborator Cara Tivey. Finally, Bragg does a nice job on Smiths B-side “Jeane,” which is one of my favorite Smiths’ songs, by slowing it down and exposing the resignation of the lyrics (“We tried and we failed”).

What’s left is a Beatles cover (“She’s Leaving Home”); an odd reinterpretation of the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee;” a slow version of “Wishing the Days Away;” and a cover of Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s “Heart Like a Wheel,” among others.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Bad Penny” is the great lost Bragg song.

Release Date

August, 1999

The Cover Art

I like the clean lines of this almost vintage-looking cartoon drawing, which neatly translates the punning title. The colored band up top is reminiscent of the design scheme of Bragg’s early releases. The subtitle is a nice touch.

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