Billy Bragg and The Blokes
England, Half English
(CD, Elektra)

It's been six years since Billy Bragg released a record of his own songs. Much of that time was spent communing with Woody Guthrie (on volumes one and two of Mermaid Avenue, he collaborated with Wilco on music for Guthrie's "lost" lyrics), an effort that brought his voice to many new ears even while Guthrie's cadences were pushing that voice in new directions.

Evidently, writing music with partners influenced Bragg as well. Many of England's tracks are structured around the whole band in a way that was rare on earlier albums, steering tunes like "Baby Faroukh" and the title track far from a stereotypical singer-songwriter feel. On the other hand, Bragg balances these with slower, introspective songs in which he characteristically blends the personal and political. And as always, the singer knows where humor and the blues intersect: "The Tears of My Tracks" inverts the old Smokey Robinson title to sympathize with a bloke so broke he has to sell all his old records.

Bragg has always worn his politics beside his heart; and for perhaps the first time in his career, something approaching a global movement exists that is clearly in sympathy with his views. On "NPWA" ("No Power Without Accountability"), he fashions an anthem for those who take to the streets to protest the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund. Musically, it's one of the weakest tracks on the album, and it features the laziest rhyming Bragg has ever done; as with Patti Smith's "People Have the Power," the songwriter's sensibility drowns in a laudable message and a melody made for chanting.

But that's a rare moment. Those who criticize the weak rhymes in "NPWA" should note that, from the first song, Bragg is still himself, penning couplets like "Nobody can say what the matter is / I'm trying to recharge my batteries." And on his England-centric songs, he returns to the clever, home-bound metaphors that have always served his politics so well. Few would argue that nurturing Guthrie's legacy wasn't worth the time it took, but it's good to have Billy Bragg back scrutinizing his side of the Atlantic. — John DeFore

Tom Waits
Alice and Blood Money
(CD, due out May 7 on Anti/Epitaph)

The master of ceremonies at a cabaret in hell, Tom Waits returns upstage with two new accompaniments to Robert Wilson's plays. Like the release of his first work with Wilson, 1993's The Black Rider (Island), the new albums are studio recordings by Waits and his special menagerie of musicians and instruments. Like every project since 1982's One From the Heart, these are collaborations with Waits' wife Kathleen Brennan, who is co-credited as songwriter and producer in both new works.

As naturally as Blood Money and Alice each fit with the rest of Waits' work, they are unquestionably distinct from each other. Alice feels mythic, even pagan, and Waits plays something of a satyr. Waits and Brennan wrote the songs on Alice in 1992 for Wilson's opera, which deals loosely with Lewis Carroll's relationship with Alice Liddell. The instrumentation is delicate, and the lyrics surreal and often narrative or character-driven. They set their world apart from our own, and like Carroll's world, one can't know if it's on the other side of the Looking Glass or merely in the head of a maniac. We do know that "Everything You Can Think of Is True" and "We're All Mad Here," and Waits matches Carroll by treating both conditions as terribly beautiful and infinitely sad.

Blood Money, based on Wilson's production of Woyzeck, shares the Protestant world of The Black Rider, and this time "God's Away on Business." It's hard to mistake a dark, nasty, clang-thump album that opens by declaring that "Misery Is the River of the World," and "Everything Goes to Hell." While the narrator of Blood Money finds brief solace in his "Coney Island Baby," asking her in the next song to "pretend that you owe me nothing and all the world is green." Soon he is spiraling into despair, smelling "a red rose blooming on another man's vine."

Perhaps Waits' greatest gift to us is distilling everything in the history of Western popular music into an entirely new thing, still creating songs that inspire other singers (from Johnny Cash to the Ramones). But Waits remains committed to context, to weaving his tunes into larger tapestries, and his two new albums are as complete and glorious — and painful — as those that have come before. — Jonathan Marcus


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