Once, Billy Bragg was known on American shores only among a small circle of indie-folk fans, lovers of sardonic college radio and left-wingers. Of late, though, Bragg's Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Wilco have earned the Englishman a broader (and considerably less political) stateside following. In fact, weird as it seems given his success, Bragg hasn't released an album of original songs since 1996.
Now, Bragg's back in the act with his own band the Blokes--featuring Small Faces legend Ian McLagan--and his own set list, singing about working people, political injustice, his nation's mutating identity and the incertitude of romantic love. You could say that Bragg's Mermaid Avenue apprenticeship to the father of American folk singers, Woody Guthrie, has paid off. England/Half English demonstrates how appropriate it was in the first place that Bragg helped polish up Guthrie's songs. His forthright style, humor and indignation have been apparent since he debuted as a one-man, unplugged answer to the Clash in the '80s, while the Blokes have evolved into a dynamite backup band, folding Bragg's lyrics into tight jams at every opportunity.
This album's winners include the timely "NPWA" with its rousing lyric "IMF, WTO, I hear these words just every place I go/ Who are these people? Who elected them?/ And how do I replace them with some of my friends?" Given the rush toward globalization and the corporate co-opting of the White House, this generation could do a lot worse than find a spokesman in Billy Bragg. --Dan Oko
Billy Bragg and the Blokes play Thursday, April 25 at the Roseland Theater, 8 NW 6th Ave., 224-2038. 8 pm. $25+ advance.
Medeski Martin & Wood
When John Medeski, Billy Martin and Chris Wood first got together in the summer of 1991, the product of their union was dubbed "acid jazz." That broad, vague label seems dated now; the music's more electronic elements have been gobbled up by other genres, while live instrument-oriented acts like MMW have discovered new fans among legions of jam-band followers. This band's appeal to the neo-hippie nation is obvious: heavy borrowing from funk, wild improvisation and rug-cutting grooves. That's where the Phishy parallels end, however. With its masterful jazzcraft and improvisational wizardry, MMW runs circles around its accidental jam-scene peers.
Uninvisible is testament to this elevated status. Medeski's superhuman organ wrangling drives an indestructible chassis composed of Martin's drums and Wood's bass. The dancehall jazz they're revered for is in full form, without sliding into stagnation. While "I Wanna Ride You" serves a straightforward diet of the heavy, raw funk so embraced by the dreadlocked masses, it's followed by "Your Name Is Snake Anthony," a dark soundscape with a subdued free-jazz feel featuring DJ Olive and spoken word by Col. Bruce Hampton of the Codetalkers. Numbers like "Snake Anthony" and "Off the Table" produce an ambient cacophony of heavily distorted organ and ping-pong samples that keeps fans guessing, ensuring MMW's reputation as a pioneer. Indeed, some have criticized these probatory ventures, damning Uninvisible as unfocused. Then again, Miles Davis was accused of musical heresy as well. --Dan Engler
This is divadom's HRH at her most sacred and profane. Beneath all the techno beats lies a breaking heart, and there's a haunting sadness that hasn't been in Cher's music since her Dark Lady days. Try not to be moved by "The Music's No Good Without You." I dare you. --Byron Beck
"Motion the 11"