Billy Bragg Reaching to the Converted (Minding the Gaps)

British troubadour Billy Bragg has never stopped tilting at windmills. Since 1985, he has sung songs about love, life and politics — his best songs touch all three bases. Living true to his credo that you cannot claim to be a socialist unless you have truly loved someone, Bragg has filled his weighty songbook with tales of his many loves and losses. Like Leonard Cohen and Scottish pop star Lloyd Cole, the singer/songwriter ranks high among musicians canonised by bookish and sensitive liberal arts types. You would think some of Bragg's early albums, Brewing Up With... and Talking to the Taxman About Poetry, were included in Frosh kits at the beginning of this decade. A fact that makes the fall release of Reaching to the Converted an odds 'n' sods compilation of b-side and non-album tracks, very timely indeed. Bragg, who recently hooked up with Wilco to record a batch of lost Woody Guthrie songs, channels the raw power of punk and the social consciousness of Dylan and other folkies. As a songwriter, he wears his heart on his sleeve in matters of sexual and state politics. Reaching to the Converted combines some of his finest recordings, rescuing many of them from the obscurity of being bonus tracks of long out-of-print single releases. The 17-track, 52-plus minute disc unites sterling originals, such as “Sulk” and “Wishing the Days Away (Ballad Version),” with Bragg's only No. 1 hit, a cover of the Beatles’ “She's Leaving Home.” Bragg's new collection also showcases his witty and self-effacing brand of romantic ballads. “In Walk Away Renee (version),” he describes himself as “the most illegible bachelor in town.'' He serenades the girl of his dreams in “Shirley” (later released as album track, “Greetings to the New Brunette”) with the fact that he is “Celebrating my love for you with a pint of beer and a new tattoo.'' The real highlight comes with a Canadian connection. “Ontario, Quebec and Me” is one of the best non-traditional Christmas songs going. “You don't need my Christmas cards, you already have my heart,'' runs the opening line, which Bragg sings in falsetto. Yuletide mixed tape makers take note, this one's a winner. (Universal)