Paul Simon – Negotiations and Love Songs 1971-1986

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

When I was growing up in the 1980s, Paul Simon had achieved what I always thought of as a puzzling sort of celebrity. For reasons I’ve never discerned, Simon enjoyed popularity in my middle school for a brief but intense period of time. “Cecilia” and “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” were particular widespread favorites. Beyond that, Simon was on Saturday Night Live multiple times and was married (and later again involved with) Star Wars icon Carrie Fisher. While his musical career foundered before Graceland, that album made him a superstar, and he was everywhere. Inescapable. Still, I never warmed to him.

What I Think of This Album

Is this a good or bad Paul Simon comp? I have no idea. And the mystery does not keep me up at night. I feel like this gives me what I need, and also a whole lot I don’t. Your mileage may vary. At one point, I owned Simon’s self-titled debut – entirely because I had read that Billy Bragg had based the “I was 21 years when I wrote this song / I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long” lyric from “A New England” on a song on that album but it turns out that is incorrect, as the line is from “Leaves That Are Green” which is on Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence. The point is that I have some exposure to an actual Paul Simon studio album. Like I said, I feel that this album is sufficient.

This collection gathers 16 tracks from the six albums Simon released from 1971 to 1986. For some reason, that seems like a low output for such a long span, but I suppose he was also busy with other projects. Relatedly, 16 tracks seems like not enough from six albums, unless the albums were shitty. But Graceland by itself could have been basically grafted onto this – it is bewildering that only two of its songs are here when so many other lesser ones are included – so again I have to wonder:  maybe this is a poorly curated album.

On the one hand, this has the famous Simon solo songs that I know I like:  “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard,” “Kodachrome,” and “Late In the Evening.” And other songs that I was less familiar with and think are fine, like “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Loves Me Like a Rock.”

I always thought the lyric in “Me and Julio” was “the radical grease gonna get me released,” which I frankly think makes more sense – or anyway is better – than “the radical priest.” Whatever. I love the Latin percussion on this (courtesy of Airto Moreira). The use of gospel singers The Dixie Hummingbirds is what elevates “Loves Me Like a Rock.”

“Kodachrome” is phenomenal. Just a great melody with a stellar arrangement (love the drumming, and so well mixed, and the piano part towards the end is eye-opening), and a touch of sociopathy in the lyrics. The other true standout is “Late In the Evening,” with drummer Steve Gadd employing four drumsticks, a fun, compelling lyric, and a great Latin horn part.

I fully admit that “Slip Slidin’ Away” is cheesy – it’s got the Oak Ridge Boys on it – but I swear to God it gets me, clip-clopping into my ear drums. The Graceland tracks are by definition excellent.

But some inclusions confuse me. “Something So Right” seems pretty wrong – snoozer. Same for “St. Judy’s Comet,” I guess written for Simon’s son; on top of being a lullaby, it’s a waste of the Muscle Shoals musicians. “Hearts and Bones” is exactly what I would expect from Paul Simon in 1983, as is the even more pandering “Train In the Distance.”

I understand why “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is here but I’ve always hated it – it’s nothing but gimmick, and shoddily done (lyrically) at that. Similarly, it’s not surprising to find “Still Crazy After All These Years,” but it’s a ponderous, heavy-handed slog. “Have a Good Time” is a fucking embarrassment, or at least should be. 

There is nothing about “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” that could in any way burnish Simon’s reputation. If anything, it speaks to two of his great, interrelated weaknesses. One is his refusal to let his talent be what it is and to instead aim for transcendence, only to land on pretension. The other is that Simon often conveys a lack of sincerity, preferring to instead advertise himself as a protean craftsman. Thus, “Magritte” could have been a touching, tender song about an elderly couple strolling past sex shops and dancing in their home to doo wop, but he had to make it a piece of historical fiction and both borrow significance and manufacture sentimentality from Magritte’s stature.

So maybe this a bad collection, or maybe I just don’t like Simon that much.

Random fact:  Cissy Houston sings backup on “Mother and Child Reunion.” 

The Best Thing About This Album

“Late In the Evening”

Release Date

October, 1988

The Cover Art

The shadow from the blinds is the only acceptable thing about this art.

Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

Two recollections this time. One, I am 99% sure I first heard “Like A Rolling Stone” on the school bus (one of the drivers over the years was a fan of the classic rock station). And I swear to god I remember being struck by it, even as I strained to hear it over all the talking (needless to say, I did not talk to anyone on the schoolbus). I didn’t know who the artist was or what the song was called, of course, but I knew I liked it. Two, many many years later, I saw Robyn Hitchcock play a solo show at the Old Town School of Folk Music. He was excellent, and for the encore (possibly the only song – I am not sure) he played “Desolation Row” (claiming, I think incorrectly, that Dylan didn’t play it live anymore). It was among the most impressive 12 minute time spans of my life. Beyond the fact that he knew all the words, and apart from his own very skilled guitar playing, Hitchcock gave this song a reading that honored the original while deviating from it.

What I Think of This Album

Springsteen described the opening drum hit of “Like A Rolling Stone” as the sound of the door of his consciousness being kicked open. That’s a tough description to beat. Highway 61 Revisited was the sound of Dylan refining his considerable gifts, somehow surpassing his stellar work on Bringing It All Back Home. If Dylan had moved away from folk on his previous album, he all but rejected it on this one (“Desolation Row” being the only link remaining).

There is so much going on in “Like A Rolling Stone,” it’s frankly daunting. Dylan delivers the lyrics with such intensity, drawing out certain words (“make a deeeeeeaaaaaal”) and emphasizing some (“how does it FEEL?”) and underplaying others (“With no direction home / A complete unknown”) and communicating a palpable, vitriolic disgust. Or is it self-loathing? Because I have a hard time listening to the song and not rapidly coming to the conclusion that Dylan(‘s narrator) is lacerating himself. But maybe that’s because while I can’t imagine subjecting another person to this relentless stream of abuse, I sure can understand doing it to myself. Speaking of relentless, Dylan’s acidic observations and mocking questions fuel this song past the six minute mark, which allows it to accrue momentum and mass, like a cartoon snowball rolling down a mountain, until it achieves this unstoppable power. Finally, there is the music itself. The instantly recognizable organ part was conceived and played by non-organist Al Kooper, a guest in the studio that day and not one of the musicians actually enlisted to record, who managed to come up with an unexpected contribution that Dylan insisted be highlighted by the mix. Mike Bloomfield played the guitar and Paul Griffin dances his fingers on the piano (Griffin also played the piano on “American Pie”), and of course that’s Dylan on the harmonica. Really, this is a perfect song.

Respite from the heavy emotion of the opening track arrives in an unusual guise, for “Tombstone Blues” is a deeply odd, essentially hallucinogenic, polemic in which Dylan verbally destroys symbols of authority and slaughters sacred cows. For all its unpredictable, evocative, surreal imagery, I find a great deal of humor in it:  from Jack the Ripper sitting at the head of the Chamber of Commerce to the sun being chicken and not yellow to the civic effort to reincarnate Paul Revere’s horse to the fantastic collection of stamps employed to win friends and influence an uncle. All the while, the band sounds like they can barely hold it together for the requisite six minutes, never slowing down even as the speeding locomotive of the song loses nuts, bolts, and plates of metal as it careens into the horizon. Bloomfield spirals out blues licks and throws out a couple of solos, Kooper adds more of his savant-organ playing, and drummer Robert Gregg tries to keep everyone on the same page. The experience is at once exhilarating and exhausting.

After those two monumental tunes, the next two songs suffer in comparison. “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” (one of my favorite Dylan song titles, actually) is a lazy, loping blues song with saloon piano. Paul Westerberg has covered this song, which doesn’t surprise me that much. Meanwhile, “From a Buick 6” is an energetic, sloppy blues song with Kooper on the organ and an insistent bass from Harvey Brooks. This odd song title has inspired Yo La Tengo (“From a Motel 6”) and Billy Bragg (“From a Vauxhall Velox”). The mean-spirited taunting of “Ballad of a Thin Man” follows, and unlike “Rolling Stone,” here it is clear that Dylan is directing his disdain outwardly, cruelly reveling in his hapless listener’s bewilderment. All the while, Dylan plays a somber piano augmented by Kooper’s spooky organ. A great song, but not one I enjoy listening to.

One of my favorite Dylan songs (there are a lot of them) is “Queen Jane Approximately,” which has a warm and gentle melody with Latin flourishes. This track, too, is critical of its subject; it provides a detailed description of the subject’s diminished circumstances, victimized by her own foolishness and shortsightedness. But, there is a sense of compassion and comfort, as Dylan invites Queen Jane to cry on his shoulder once she has hit rock bottom and rid herself of her illusions. The piano is wonderful, the guitar leads are cool, and the harmonica part is excellent. Luna’s “I Want Everything” borrows from the melody of “Queen Jane.” Dylan follows this up with the comical, Judeo-Freudian (Dylan’s father was named Abram [Abraham], and Highway 61 goes to Dylan’s hometown of Duluth) fever dream of “Highway 61 Revisited.” Between the omnipresent slide whistle and the considerable wordplay, this is Dylan at his most exuberant. LA punks X have an excellent cover of “Highway 61 Revisited.”

The barrelhouse piano reappears on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” another bit of comedy, this time revolving around a series of physical and moral grotesqueries in Mexico. still, the feel of the song is laidback and easygoing. Wrapping things up is the epic, multi-hued “Desolation Row.” Lacking the ire of much of the rest of the classic songs on this album, Dylan adopts a plainspoken delivery and lets the imagery flow, incorporating references literary, biblical, and historical, all of it disturbingly pointing to decay and destruction. While Dylan’s lyrics are the understandable focus, the intricate guitar fills by Charlie McCoy are nothing short of beautiful. The Old 97’s borrowed the melody for “Champaign, Illinois.” It’s difficult to imagine surpassing Bringing It All Back Home, but Dylan accomplished that, a mere five months later, with this jaw-dropping work.

Bob Johnston produced.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Like a Rolling Stone,” but almost every track is stupendous.

Release Date

August, 1965

The Cover Art

Intentionally or not, the combination of the red and white horizontal stripes and the motorcycle graphic on Dylan’s shirt give this a mythical “American” feel (though I am guessing its a Triumph (and therefore British) motorcycle).

There Is a Light That Never Goes Out

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Look, the title is taken from an iconic Smiths song, and the album cover mimics the art of my favorite Smiths release, Hatful of Hollow. There is no way I wasn’t going to buy this MOJO magazine compilation. Of course, there is no real connection to the Smiths on the album – the liner notes shamelessly claim this to be “a snapshot of the scene they dominated for five years” and acknowledges that the album collects songs from the Smiths’ “contemporaries.” Which is fine, because this is a pretty good comp, and I have almost all the Smiths I need, anyway.

What I Think of This Album

I know for sure that I own four of these fifteen tracks already, and it’s possible I own a couple more on my indie-pop box sets. And in fact, I’ve already covered the Billy Bragg, Close Lobsters, and Weather Prophets songs found on this collection, and I will eventually get to the Go-Betweens (in a year, maybe?). So I’m going to skip over them, except I will point out that all of those songs are excellent.

The remainder of the album is just as strong. Highlights include Hurrah!’s “Sweet Sanity,” driven by emotional lead vocals. Hurrah! opened for U2 and Bowie and released two studio albums, with a “lost” third album being issued in 2010. I am sure I have a Woodentops song on more than one comp, possibly even the claustrophobic, paranoid “Well Well Well,” which sounds like a band caving in on itself (with a strong debt to Suicide; parts of Ministry’s “Jesus Built My Hotrod” also remind me of this song). The bassist for the Woodentops was Frank deFreitas, who was the brother of Echo and the Bunnymen drummer Pete deFreitas; guitarist Rolo McGinty was in the Wild Swans and the Jazz Butcher; and, just to close the loop, Pete deFreitas played on the debut Wild Swans single (though I don’t know if McGinty was in the band at that time).

The Nightingales’s “Crafty Fag” is even more unhinged than the Woodentops song, replete with sharp corners, disorienting drums, and frenetic vocals. Perhaps the most fun song here is the Flatmates’ “I Could Be In Heaven,” which is a sugar rush of jangly guitars, rapid fire drums, cooing backing vocals, and a beach party/girl-group vibe; they never released a studio album. The awkwardly monikered Martin Stephenson and the Daintees offer the blandly enjoyable “Crocodile Cryer,” though I could do without the keyboard solo.

Interest returns in the form of the sardonic, bleakly humorous “How I Learned to Love the . . . Bomb,” by the Television Personalities. I never got into the La’s –  I never liked Lee Mavers’s voice – but “Open Your Heart” isn’t terrible. I also did not care for the Blue Aeroplanes and “Action Painting” doesn’t convince me that I was wrong.

I’ve already written about the Dentists, but not about song “Strawberries Are Growing In My Garden (and It’s Wintertime),” which is from their earlier, more psychedelic days. Finally, the Chesterfields’ anxious and jittery “Completely and Utterly” is a nice, jangly tune with a great vocal at the end. The only song I need to skip here is the one by Felt.

The Best Thing About This Album

Oh, “I Could Be In Heaven,” for sure.

Release Date

October, 2012

The Cover Art

Like I said, it’s based on the Smiths’ compilation Hatful of Hollow, and it’s a decent homage but nothing more.

Wilco – Summerteeth

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

Jay Bennett. This album is really all about Jay Bennett for me. Bennett, who transformed Wilco from an alt-country band into a pop powerhouse (and more). Bennett, who was kicked out of Wilco. Bennett, who despite his immense talent, probably needed a foil or partner like Jeff Tweedy. Bennett, who died in 2009 as a result of an accidental prescription drug overdose. And yet, I can’t really justify my affection and admiration for Bennett. I found his non-Wilco work – Titanic Love Affair (inspired by a Billy Bragg lyric) and a couple of solo albums I owned at one point – to be fitfully appealing, and I don’t care for roughly ⅖ of his Wilco output. But the stuff I do like? It’s out of this world. The scenes from documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart that depict Bennett as an obsessive, minutiae-focused control freak actually endear him to me; his enthusiasm, creativity, focus, dedication, and talent – as instrumentalist, arranger, and studio whiz – are inspirational.

What I Think of This Album

People can rave about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot all they want; as far as I am concerned, this is Wilco’s masterpiece. At seventeen tracks and an hour of music, this almost qualifies as a double-album, but it never feels that way. You are instead cocooned in the lush, sumptuous, warm world that Bennet and Tweedy have created (the contributions of the other band members were reportedly quite reduced – Bennett even drummed on some of the songs). Reportedly they were both in bad shape, drug-wise during this time.

Many people speak of Tweedy’s lyrical growth here, and obviously this is head-and-shoulders above A.M., and he does offer up some nice abstract imagery, but there also some clunkers, and I honestly don’t get the fuss over “the ashtray says you’ve been up all night.” Anyway, most of the magic on this album is in the arrangements:  the bells on double-jointed opener “I Can’t Stand It,” as well as the little piano part at the end (I do like the “No love’s as random / As God’s love” lyric); the intricate orchestration on “She’s a Jar” – the woodwinds (keyboard) part, the faux-strings, some subtle fake horns, the clean harmonica from Tweedy, and a nice bass part (the “sleepy kisser” lyric is good); the descending piano line and moaning cello on “A Shot In the Arm,” not to mention the fucking TIMPANI, as well as the wavery synths, and the bass riff as the song works its way to a close; and the subtle organ and gentle backing vocals on “We’re Just Friends.”

There is also the analog synth line in “I’m Always In Love” that haunted Ric Ocasek’s dreams and the little piano part, plus the buried scream at the end (I always think the “you I swoon” line is “you asshole,” and I always will). Excellent drumming abounds on the sighing, handclapped Beatles-esque “Nothingsesvergonnastandinmyway(again)” – the alarm clock is a nice touch. Pet Sounds is the obvious touchstone for the shape-shifting “Pieholden Suite” (Bennett would later name his production studio after this song). The bass carries “How To Fight Loneliness,” but the organ plays a key role, and the keyboards at the end – sounding like backwards woodwinds – add an unusually appealing psychedelic touch. Similarly, the Moog creates the perfect pillow for the shuffling, impressionistic  “Via Chicago,” while the banjo is a welcome distraction; there is a guitar solo that comes from heaven and hell simultaneously, and the piano is gorgeous.

There is no lap steel credit for rambunctious “ELT,” but I refuse to believe that is a synth or keyboard. Brian Wilson would throw his piano into the ocean to have thought up the arrangement on panoramic lullaby “My Darling,” on which Coomer has a great drum part. There is a ‘70’s singer-songwriter vibe to “When You Wake Up Feeling Old,” which is the closest thing to a disposable song on this album. Bennett definitely played lap steel on the quasi-throwback title track, which sounds a little like the Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves the Sun”; I like the birdsong a lot. Ostensible closer “In a Future Age,” is a contemplative, folky number with some interesting sounds, but probably the second-worst song on the album. Hidden track “Candyfloss” (which is what Brits call cotton candy) is a rowdy and muscular rocker adorned with bells and a hilarious operatic vocal track. Finally, there is an alternate version of “A Shot In the Arm.”

It’s important to clarify that it’s not all about window dressing. These are excellent pop songs on their own. This was Wilco unafraid to be pretty and vulnerable and colorful. Wilco never made music this beautiful again. “You’ve changed / What you once were isn’t what you want to be / Anymore,” indeed.

Ephemera: Mitch Easter (Let’s Active) and Dave Trumfio (the Pulsars) were among the engineers on this album.

The Best Thing About This Album

Jay. Fucking. Bennett.

Release Date

March, 1999

The Cover Art

It took me a long time to figure this out, not that I ever paid that much attention to it. It appears to be someone blowing a bubble with gum (though the bubble is unusually large and gravity-defiant). The black and white doesn’t work for me and I hate the blue, as well as the way the title runs into the band name.

Billy Bragg & Wilco – Mermaid Avenue Vol. II

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 7)

While I am disappointed that Billy Bragg’s career has tailed off, I am pretty satisfied with this, the last great Bragg work. It’s entirely fitting that this is how his part in my collection ends. I hope he one day returns to his roots, but even if not, he remains one of my favorite artists, and I admire his humanity as much as his artistry.

What I Think of This Album

The sequel is better than the original. Guthrie had thousands of lyrics lying around, so it’s no surprise that not only is there a second act but that Bragg and Wilco were able to cherry-pick from the pile. Of course, not all the credit goes to Guthrie. Bragg and Wilco wrote some excellent music and turned in very strong performances this time around. Shit, I even like Natalie Merchant’s singing on the pretty “I Was Born,” propped up by Bragg’s surprisingly delicate guitar.

Among the many standouts are the pop masterpiece “Secret of the Sea,” on which Jay Bennett plays, like, 5,000,000 instruments (though the fine bass work is all John Stirratt’s). Almost as impressive is the ramshackle “Airline to Heaven.” And the gorgeous ballad “Remember the Mountain Bed” is a song few bands could pull off. The thrumming, brooding “Blood of the Lamb” is memorable, with an opening drum that mimics Satan’s heartbeat and stellar organ work from Bennett.

Bragg contributes the rousing “All You Fascists,” which relies on Bennett’s slide guitar and harmonica (and Stirratt’s bass), and the brittle and shambling “My Flying Saucer,” with some sweet backwards guitar, as well as Merchant’s showcase. On top of this, he adds the joyous “Joe DiMaggio Done It Again” and collaborates with neo-acoustic-bluesman Corey Harris (I admit I’d never heard of him before) on the humorous absurdist complaint “Aginst Th’ Law.” Plus, Bragg shines on the campaign song “Stetson Kennedy,” written for the activist and author who ran for the governorship of Florida in 1952. There are a few duds here and there, but overall this is an outstanding collection.

One of the engineers on this was Dave Trumfio of the Pulsars.

The Best Thing About This Album

It’d be very easy to say that Wilco wins again, with “Secret of the Sea,” but the fact is that the best thing about this album is Jay Bennett, whose tremendous talent was crucial to this album.

Release Date

May, 2000

The Cover Art

If you’re going to put a cat on your album cover, it had better be a great fucking cover to overcome that kind of liability. I like the text but other than that, this one goes in the trash bin.

Billy Bragg & Wilco – Mermaid Avenue

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 6)

This unusual but appropriate project was sort of the end of the road for me with Billy Bragg, sadly. His post-Mermaid Avenue albums never resonated, but I still have tremendous love and respect for him. As it is, this effort (and its follow-up album) was a fun and admirable diversion from his usual body of work, and sits pretty comfortably alongside his original material.

What I Think of This Album

Bragg as the spiritual heir of Woody Guthrie – despite the ocean that separated them – is reasonable and fitting. Wilco as collaborator seems more like a concession to popularity than to a recognition of any strong ties on their part to folk or Americana, though they are capable of adopting the pose of a modern-day Band. And the conceit of humanizing Guthrie and breaking free of the rigid notions that he has been held in is worthwhile, though I still don’t think that this goal justifies the inclusion of nonsense song “Hoodoo Voodoo” or the love letter to “Ingrid Bergman.”

Overall, I think this project would have been better executed if someone – namely, Bragg – had exerted more control; instead, what we get are the Bragg songs and the Wilco songs, with the Bragg material more faithful to spirit of Guthrie and the Wilco songs sounding like, well, Wilco songs, but neither quite natural because the words being sung are Guthrie’s. Divorced from any context, most of the songs are excellent, and that’s what really matters anyway.

“California Stars” is a wonderful slice of unaffected, bucolic pop. “Walt Whitman’s Niece” has a cheeky, wooly randiness to it. And “Way Over Yonder In the Minor Key” is sweetly nostalgic, though I have to say I can’t stand Natalie Merchant’s vocals, which is what dooms the spare, slow “Birds and Ships.” As pointless as the alleged children’s song “Hoodoo” is, the musical arrangement is excellent, with Jay Bennett expertly playing the Farfisa. “She Came Along to Me” is a jaunty feminist ditty with a cool slide guitar part, and Jeff Tweedy ably inhabits the faithfully titled “Sad and Lonely.” That said, his gravelly take on “Christ for President,” and the attendant clavinet and piano, makes the song sound inauthentic and unserious.

Bragg is right at home on the pro-labor “I Guess I Planted,” with Wilco providing lively backing. Tweedy intones deeply – perhaps not the right approach on the otherwise romantic “One By One” – as if trying to match the grandeur of the organ, pedal steel, and Ken Coomer’s booming drums. Guthrie’s surprising ambivalence on “Eisler On the Go” is the most noteworthy element of this somber, reflective, and repetitive track, though the melodica is not a waste. “Hesitating Beauty” is another fine, sunny love song (“By the stars and clouds above / We can spend our lives in love / You’re a hesitating beauty, Nora Lee”). Closing outlaw ballad “The Unwelcome Guest” is right in Bragg’s wheelhouse, and he launches it all the way to Wall Street, where it hopefully takes out more than a few capitalists.

The Best Thing About This Album

“California Stars,” but it could be easily dethroned by “Hesitating Beauty.”

Release Date

June, 1998

The Cover Art

Below average. The placement of the artist names and album title is all wrong, as is the font for the title. The washed out grey tones of the photo suggest a different framing would’ve been wise:  did we need the building on the left, the building on the right, and the wide swath of asphalt in the shot? We did not.

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.

Billy Bragg – Don’t Try This at Home

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 4)

This album came out when I was in college, and I was thrilled – THRILLED – to learn that Johnny Marr had co-written the excellent single from it, “Sexuality.” I was disappointed that he was not in the music video, however. On the one hand, the album cemented Bragg’s move away from his early sound, but on the other, it was a return to form, with some of his sharpest songwriting in years and a trio of vigorous protest songs. I really thought this album was going to do better than it did, but it was released the same month as Nevermind, Use Your Illusion I & II, and Badmotorfinger (as well as a month after Ten), and never had a chance.

What I Think of This Album

Really, this was the album that should have made Bragg a star. And that was probably the goal, coming three years after the muddled Workers Playtime; here, he completes his transition from rough hewn punk-folkie to literate, witty pop craftsman, and with a bevy of famous guests to boot. While a tad overlong at 16 tracks – this would’ve been outstanding whittled back to 12 songs – Bragg finally hits the sweet spot of matching his songs with the appropriate full band arrangements.

If some of the early fire is dialed back, it is not completely absent as on Playtime, and Bragg shows he is still capable of spitting out “fascism” with unmatched disgust and vitriol. In fact, rousing opener “Accident Waiting to Happen” comes across as a statement of purpose, with Bragg combining his obsessions – love and politics – in the rare song that doesn’t focus on one or the other; why the narrator would be in a position to have to end it with a “dedicated swallower of fascism” in the first instance goes unaddressed, however. “Cindy of a Thousand Lives” – inspired by feminist photographer Cindy Sherman – is a verdant, almost orchestral-pop number, with Johnny Marr of the Smiths on guitar and Kirsty MacColl singing backup. Peter Buck and Michael Stipe appear on the unusually rustic “You Woke Up My Neighborhood,” which was co-written by Buck.

The most bizarre choice, though, is to bury the standout “Sexuality” in the nine slot, on the second half of the album. Featuring Marr’s unmistakable jangle, this sex-positive ditty is fun and clever and lighthearted; MacColl also sings harmony on this should’ve-been hit. Equally clever is the rueful “Mother of the Bride” in which Bragg laments blowing his chance with the now-wedded woman of his dreams (“I saw her at the hardware store / He looked boring and she looked bored / It’s nice to know that someone was on my side / Best wishes to the mother of the bride”).

“Tank Park Salute” is a touching tribute to his father, and “North Sea Bubble” is a throwback to his early sound, with an energetic ’50’s style guitar attack and a biting critique of capitalism, and reference to Edwin Starr (“War! / What is it good for? / It’s good for business”). Bragg tackles the resurgence of fascism in Britain (“And they salute the foes their fathers fought / By raising their right hands in the air”), as well as the complacency of the culture that accepts it, on the angry “The Few” to stirring effect. Elsewhere, “Body of Water” and “Moving the Goalposts” are solid songs.

The covers don’t do much for me – including a song about the US internment of citizens of Japanese descent co-written by Sid Griffin of the Long Ryders – and some of the slower numbers, like “Trust” and “God’s Footballer” really could have been cut. But overall, this is a strong album that proves that Bragg was much more than just a busker with an above-average vocabulary.

Tangent:  engineer Victor Van Vugt went on to produce albums by Luna, Nick Cave, Beth Orton, P.J. Harvey, and Mojave 3. Also, cellist Julia Palmer eventually played with Cinerama.

The Best Thing About This Album

How many songwriters will reference Serbian soccer team Red Star Belgrade and nuclear submarines, and also rhyme “Robert DeNiro” with “Mitsubishi Zero,” while in addition touching upon masturbation? I don’t know, but Billy Bragg did – and thanks to Johnny Marr for making it sound delightful – in the excellent “Sexuality.”

Release Date

September, 1991

The Cover Art

The color scheme is terrible and the undecipherable cartoons – a study of the liner notes reveals that each is attached to a specific song – are confusing. The font for the album title is good. But otherwise, this is a disaster of a cover.

Billy Bragg – Workers Playtime

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

Sometimes you own an album just for one song, and while that is admittedly stupid, it is also unavoidable and, ultimately, a testament to the power of that one song. These things aren’t rational, they are emotional. Emotions don’t make sense, unfortunately. It is unfair to write off this album as just a vehicle for “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” as there are a few other good songs on here, but those numbers pale dramatically against “Leap,” and even compared to Bragg’s other material, are not quite up to par.

What I Think of This Album

This is an extremely subdued album, trading the loud guitar of Bragg’s early work for piano, and also exchanging passion for craft; for the first time, there are whole band arrangements surrounding the songs, and Bragg doesn’t seem to know how to make that transition.

So while “She’s Got a New Spell” boasts a nice 12-string part from perennial pal Wiggy, a pleasant melody, and some intriguing lyrics, it’s also fairly lightweight. Honestly, no Billy Bragg song should ever last more than two-and-a-half minutes, which tells you all you need to know about the organ-heavy, over five-minute-long ballad “Must I Paint You a Picture,” which gives a co-vocal to keyboardist Cara Tivey; it’s not a bad song, but it’s not a fun one. “The Price I Pay for Loving You” is again piano-driven, and a well-constructed mature love song, but it languishes at not even mid-tempo. “Little Time Bomb” is aurally similar, except for the horns (excellent) and some more audible guitar. “Rotting on Remand” likewise can’t get out of first gear, despite an excellently played piano and some tasteful pedal steel. “Life With the Lions” is the first song to show any spark, but again, is piano heavy (though, once more, Tivey does an outstanding job on the instrument). There is considerably beauty to the sad “The Only One,” with a somber cello and delicate guitar, but it only adds to the feel that this album is overly plaintive. Indeed, slower (yes, slower) numbers like the a capella “Tender Comrade” and the ivory-reliant “Valentine’s Day Is Over” really drag things down. There is true excellence on “The Short Answer,” which has brass and strings (including cello by Julia Palmer (Cinerama)), but predictably, is not a rocker.

The saving grace, making up for all these missteps and snoozers and leaving room to spare, is the unusually self-aware, self-deprecating, and ultimately affirming anthem “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” in which Bragg wittily explores his purpose and principles as an activist musician (“Mixing pop and politics / He asks me what the use is / I offer him embarrassment / And the usual excuses”). Starting out simply with guitar and piano, the song bursts into a robust, energetic band arrangement, complete with group backing vocals (including from Michelle Shocked). For the first time, Bragg sounds like he’s having a blast and when he shouts an unexpected Star Trek reference (“Beam me up, Scotty”), it’s like he’s been liberated from the shackles of whatever he was trying to prove on the previous ten tracks.

The Best Thing About This Album

Oh, it’s not even close this time. “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards” is a top five Bragg song. Live, it is amazing.

Release Date

September, 1988

The Cover Art

Not good. The yellow is awful, and the individual text boxes at the top are difficult to navigate. The main image is too small and cluttered to be appreciated. The font of the album title is good, as is the clever Soviet-style logo. That bottom third of the cover should have been the entire cover, with a different color background.

Billy Bragg – Talking With the Taxman About Poetry

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

I like this album for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the collaboration (fortunately, not the last) between Billy Bragg and Johnny Marr of the Smiths on the lead track. The idea that two of my favorite musicians were working together was thrilling. I hoped they would do an entire album together, which never happened, but man, that would’ve been great. They both seem like such nice people (I did quickly meet Bragg once, and he was polite and lovely).

What I Think of This Album

Subtitled “The Difficult Third Album,” this is another strong entry for Bragg. Sure, it’s a notch below his earlier offerings, but what isn’t? Bragg moves further away from his tube station busker mode, adopting a gentler voice and adding guest harmonies (from Kirsty MacColl), guest and overdubbed guitar (Marr, as well as producer John Porter), subtle organ and piano, a violin, flourishes of brass, and even some percussion. It’s the usual mix of love songs and protest tunes, heavier on the former and with a surprising number of covers.

Bragg excels with the jangly “Greeting to the New Brunette,” courtesy of Marr and a nice slide guitar solo from Porter, and some characteristically clever lyrics. There is growth here, too, as Bragg doesn’t settle for songs of unrequited love but explores more mature relationship themes, including the growing pains of a couple. Hence, there is frustration and resignation coloring “The Marriage” (“Marriage is when we admit / Our parents were probably right”); a disgraced and confused lover – supported by a saloon piano – pines on the jaunty “Honey, I’m a Big Boy Now;” and loneliness suffuses the countryish “Wishing the Days Away.” Even better are the lilting “The Passion,” and the unassuming “The Warmest Room.” A standout is the Motown-referencing “Levi Stubbs’ Tears,” a short story about a hard-luck young woman, suffering from domestic violence, who takes solace in her Four Tops cassette; the bridge on this song is fantastic, as is the brass. You will feel how you feel about the political songs.  Bragg borrows the tune from Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” for “Ideology,” which bristles with indignation; adopts a U.S. Civil War song (“Battle Cry of Freedom”) for the rousing “There Is Power In A Union;” and references the Beach Boys in “Help Save the Youth of America,” noting that the next world war won’t spare the United States (“And the cities of Europe have burned before / And they may yet burn again / But if they do I hope you understand / That Washington will burn with them / Omaha will burn with them / Los Alamos will burn with them”). Also included is a cover of “Train Train” (also known as “Take It Easy”) by pub rockers The Count Bishops, for reasons I can’t fathom.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Levi Stubbs’ Tears” is sad and not at all fun, but it is a remarkable piece of songwriting.

Release Date

September, 1986

The Cover Art

Literally cartoonish, but in a good way. I like the main image and the smaller smiling taxman (?), as well as the blue band across the top. It’s a good shade of blue. I’ve also always liked the Go! Discs logo.

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