These days, Billy Bragg is apparently happily married, and not very prolific. Back in the '80s, however, when every failed romance or unrequited crush led to a song--or four--Bragg wrote more ditties than he had albums for. So the British punk-folkie filled singles and EPs with tossed-off tunes, many of which were never released in the United States.
Now Rhino has remedied the situation with "Reaching to the Converted," a collection of 17 songs about impossible love and hopeless socialism. They are mostly the sort of tunes that Bragg, who appears tonight at the 9:30 club with Freedy Johnston, no longer performs.
Fruitful as he was, Bragg didn't actually write all these songs. The album includes covers of compositions by such epochal British bands as the Beatles ("She's Leaving Home") and the Smiths ("Jeane"), as well as an original recitative set to the tune of the Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee" (played by the Smiths' Johnny Marr). The album also contains alternate versions of songs previously available stateside, such as "Accident Waiting to Happen" and "Greetings to the New Brunette" (here called "Shirley"). These fit well with such obscurities as "The Boy Done Good," a jaunty jumble of amorous contentment and football (that is, soccer) metaphors.
The album's political songs have aged less well. "Think Again," Bragg's pro-Soviet Cold War homily, is now propaganda without a point, while "Days Like These" attacks a British ruling party that currently doesn't rule. More amusing--if considerably more arcane--is the singer's a cappella defense of political pop and his own career, "I Don't Need This Pressure Ron." The reference is to the "I don't need this pressure on" refrain of an early Spandau Ballet hit, and if you already knew that, you may appreciate "Reaching to the Converted." Less scholarly listeners, however, should probably stick to Bragg's mainstream catalogue.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8151.)
"I sail alone" is the first line on Freedy Johnston's new album, "Blue Days Black Nights" (Elektra), and that sounds about right. This Kansas-bred New Yorker has been recording songs about loneliness and loss for a decade. His brand of rue is less brash and more poetic than that of early Billy Bragg, but both have a way with tales of hapless yearning. While Johnston's new disc opens with his fantasy of a peaceful, cloistered "Underwater Life," it closes with the singer in the street, vainly trying to catch the eye of someone named "Emily": "No recognition/ I must be mistaken/ You're sure you have never/ Seen me."
Such abashed reflections are not unprecedented in the performer's work, but in the past they were usually contrasted by such upbeat songs as "The Lucky One." This album, however, has a cocktail-lounge ambiance that's ruffled only by the moderately energetic "Changed Your Mind" and "Until the Sun Comes Back Again." Although Johnston and his collaborators (who include co-producer T-Bone Burnett) rely on traditional rock-band instrumentation, such hushed tunes as "Pretend It's Summer" set a tinkling-piano mood. When Johnston sets the agenda for what he and a friend will do until the sun comes up again, it sounds as if he's prepared for a lifetime of black nights.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8152.)
CAPTION: Freedy Johnston also sings of loss and loneliness on his new "Blue Days Black Nights."