Billy Bragg and Joe Henry
Shine a Light
Unprocessed and Authentic Interpretations of the Other Great American Songbook.
Hmmm…..where do I start here? I like to think of myself as a Billy Bragg fan; or at least I certainly used to be ‘back in the day’ but in recent years his fascination with all things ‘Woody Guthrie’ coupled with age appears to have mellowed him; just when the world needs an angry Billy Bragg!
Which brings us to Shine On (Field recordings from the Great American Railroad) recorded with friend Joe Henry during a trip between Chicago and LA; where they would set up their minimalist recording gear in waiting rooms and occasionally in actual sidings; eventually recording their last song at dawn in Union Station.
The album opens with the lonesome sound of a train before the duo reactivate Rock Island Line and the mood is set for a trip back in time; with a series of classic and less well known American Railroad songs from across the ages.
Some songs work better than others in this format; with the background noises in Railroad Bill adding a certain ‘something’ Billy Bragg’s rudimentary reading of this normally jaunty Folk song; but on Waiting For a Train he sounds like he is actually in a studio and the song is all the better for that; although I’m not sure he has a career as a professional yodeller any time soon.
Possibly because my expectation wasn’t quite so high for Joe Henry I much prefer the songs he takes the lead on, with Hobo’s Lullaby probably being the finest song here, with Bragg a perfect foil on harmonies.
Obviously musical experts will harrumph; but I’ve never associated Gentle on my Mind as a ‘railroad song’ but it most certainly is and fits in perfectly here with Joe Henry making it a world weary Folk Song and not the pop hit we all remember.
For me; the song that encapsulates the whole album is another contemporary song Early Morning Rain, which closes the album and has Henry on lead vocals and Bragg, picking the guitar and providing those ragged harmonies again, as the sounds of a lonely railway station buzz in the background.
I guess that this was a great idea by the two musicians and it works in the way they intended; but I doubt it will be in any Top 10’s at the end of the year nor get played much by fans of either or even railway fanatics a month after purchase.
Released September 26th 2016