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Billy Bragg Tooth & Nail
I am quite a big fan of folk music in general and so of course am quite aware of Billy Bragg's presence within the genre. I have also had the privilege of seeing him a few times perform live at music festivals, and have always been impressed by him. That said, I did not own any of his records and only knew a handful of his songs. When his first studio album for 5 years 'Tooth & Nail' came out and was only £3.99 on Amazon as an MP3 download, I thought I would take a punt and get it.
By looking at the background to the album, it was apparently recorded in Pasadena and there is a rich sense of Americana and country influences to this record. I saw him a couple of years ago do a complete set of Woody Guthrie covers on the 100th anniversary of his birth so perhaps this is not a huge surprise that he has chosen to go in this direction for his newest album
The opening track 'January Song' is a case in point with this as it is littered with American references to sidewalks and bumper stickers as he wanders about his everyday life.
'No One Knows Nothing Anymore' refers to a growing feeling of unease and uncertainty in everyday. He starts by describing the search for the 'God particle' and then moves on to the financial crash and questions the futility of finding solace in finding answers and solutions - "What if there's no pot of gold to find/Only the blind leading the blind/". That said, he tries to make this an optimistic thing with a driving guitar riff and "Let's break it down and start again"
"Handyman Blues" is a gentle and simple return to his more satirical roots, where he humorously bemoans he lack of DIY skills but validates these with his artistic abilities "Don't be expecting me to put up shelves or build a garden shed/But I can write a song that tells the world how much I love you instead". I would recommend that you check out the official music video for this one as it is quite amusing and contains cameos from a number of famous comedians.
"I Ain't Got No Home' is a Woody Guthrie cover and the only non-original track on the album. It is well chosen as despite being popularised in the 1950's it still holds particular weight in these troubled financial times "The gambling man is rich/The working man is poor"
'Swallow My Pride' is an honest account of a tempestuous long-term relationship where the singer knows he is truly at fault but cannot bring himself to make amends. "I'm the man who makes you cry yourself to sleep/How can a man be strong if he can't even life a telephone and say he's sorry"
'Do Unto Others' is probably the most Americana track and has the basic premise of the "Do unto others as you would have them do to you" and makes references to the bible. I had to double check that this was not a cover as it felt as though it could have been another Woody Guthrie cover but no, it's an original track just with a very authentic 'old' feel.
'Goodbye, Goodbye' is the song of someone on their deathbed saying farewell to their nearest and dearest and is quite touching, not least because it was apparently inspired by the passing of Bragg's mother the previous year.
"There Will Be A Reckoning" sees Bragg as his rockiest, and has tinges of Springsteen and Tom Petty about it and tries to obtain some resolution for the actions of "the peddlers of hate.... And the politicians too/Who led us to this fate.".
"Chasing Rainbows" is possibly the most strictly country influenced tune on the album, both in its execution and in its subversion of common tropes and clichés in its lyrics "If you go chasing rainbows/then you're bound to end up getting wet"
"Your Name on my Tongue" is by far my favourite track on the album. It is a gentle emotive well-rounded track complete with heavy piano and soaring melody and is truly beautiful.
"Tomorrows Going to Be a Better Day" is a really nice closer, trying to find a gentle optimism, complete with upbeat whistling. "Tomorrow is going to Be a Better Day/We're Going To Make It That Way"
All in all, I really like this album and am very pleased with this being my first purchase from his pretty extensive back catalogue. There are no really weak tracks and a couple of really, really good ones.
Bragg is well known as a left-wing activist so it is no surprise that his first album since the advent of the coalition government and the financial crash would contain a lot of political undertones. Whilst these references are explicit, they do not over-egg anything else on the album, not least because the guy can write a good catchy tune that stays with you - so you definitely feel that you have got his point without being lectured out . Perhaps unsurprisingly he sounds impassioned and matter-of-fact about everything and tries not to get bogged down in overly pessimistic ways for the most part.
Whilst a bit of his distinctive 'Cockney' vocals come out at some points, for the most part he fully buys into the whole Americana/country side of it and brings out his gruffest vocals - this feels entirely appropriate and not at all forced which is great because it could feel quite fake and affected in the wrong hands.
I would highly recommend this album if you have even the slightest interest in Americana based folk or protest music (of which I think Bragg is still the leader). It is a solid, consistent well put together record with a lot of heart and it doesn't take many plays for the tunes and messages to stay with you without bashing you over the head with them.
Best tracks- Your Name on my Tongue, There will be a Reckoning, No one Knows Nothing Anymore.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 January Song
2 No One Knows Nothing Anymore
3 Handyman Blues
4 I Ain't Got No Home
5 Swallow My Pride
6 Do Unto Others
7 Over You
8 Goodbye, Goodbye
9 There Will Be A Reckoning
10 Chasing Rainbows
11 Your Name On My Tongue
12 Tomorrow's Going To Be A Better Day