REVIEWS: Warsawpack, Chris Lee, and Bear Left
Warsawpack | Chris Lee | Bear Left
Warsawpack: Stocks and Bombs [G7 Welcoming Committee, 2003] (mp3s)
Three words? all worked up
It will be a long time before we lose the need for protest music. We seem to have been cursed to live in "Interesting Times," and consequently there remains a lot to complain about. A political movement comes of age only when its own protest music has emerged, and the prominence of old chestnuts ("Give Peace a Chance," "For What It's Worth") at today's anti-war rallies suggests that perhaps contemporary dissent hasn't found its voice. Along with Rage Against the Machine, Ani DiFranco and labelmates Propagandhi, Warsawpack have done their best to provide a soundtrack for 21st century protest, starting with 2002's vitreolic Gross Domestic Product. There, the Hamilton seven-piece wove a dense pattern of hip-hop, jazz, funk and rock, storming walls with confidence, spitting verbal bullets at big business, big oil, the world's big bosses.
Sonically, Stocks and Bombs shares all the qualities of its predecessor: horns blast and buzz over a skittering dj scratch, electric guitars razor through juicy basslines. Lee Raback is an angry prophet who calls down the gods, pouring out acid rhymes like a slyer Zach de la Rocha.
And yet, it all seems a little played out. It's been almost two years since September 11, and three since George W. Bush "stole" the presidency. Rage Against the Machine broke up in 2000. Warsawpack's rap-rock-jazz, however capably performed, no longer feels as fresh as it did even twelve months ago. Instead, their declamations are almost boring - the unchanging whine of an engine stuck in one gear. This time round, they're upset about Wolf Blitzer, genetically modified food, "student yuppies and Martha Stewart." And boy are they upest. But we've heard these messages before, and in the same style. There's no revolution in Stocks and Bombs, except the one that Raback keeps shouting about.
Chris Lee: Cool Rock [Misra, 2003] (mp3)
Three words? Open hearted lullabyes.
At first I couldn't help but think that Cool Rock was the worst album-title of all time. If not a loathsome Kenny G covers collection, it would at least feature some saxophone. And it does. And yet the truth of the matter is not only that this is a lovely little record, but also that it deserves its title. Yes, "cool rock" describes Cool Rock to a tee, and it's with happiness that I lean back and let Chris Lee's love-songs splash over me.
If Jeff Buckley were happy, he would sound like Chris Lee. The eight songs on this album are light and open, Lee's high expressive voice dancing atop electric guitar, drums, and an occasional blooming of horns. There's more than a dash of blue-eyed soul here, but the vocal flourishes aren't piled on too thick; Lee's connection to Gaye and Redding is in the unflinching enthusiasm thrown into every word, the glee, passion and sincerity. His lyrics are the things of earnest summer whispers, tossed out at picnics but not quite worth writing down. His melodies are delicious fancies, particularly in the one-two punch that opens Cool Rock. "Cossacks of Love," in spite of its absurd title, carries a vivacious strummed guitarline, a cheerful packet of handclaps. "Sail On" gets flying in its chorus, a crooned vocal harmony rising out of the whitecapped blue sea. While the record stumbles during the clumsy lyrics of "(I Was a Teenage) Symphony to God," the open-hearted singing on "Bronx Science (Julie Ann)" leaves all that behind. Over the album's half-hour running-time, Lee's joyous crisp lovesongs never have the chance to grow trite; the cheese never gathers, instead, they all simply breeze by.
Bear Left: Urban Safari [self-released, 2003] (mp3s)
Three words? playing it safe
The bravest part of Urban Safari is "Little Europe." Unexpected harmonies emerge out of unexpected melodic turns, filling in the song's simple story - something of heritage and home. It's not much of a brave song, really, but Bear Left's simple modus operandi doesn't call for extreme courage; their folk convictions and pop silliness are unburdened by the pretension of post-rock and musique concrète. What makes "Little Europe" special is that it takes just the right amount of risks - voices from the back, ukelele, accordion, flute - to erect a whole, finished song. "Dear" and "Brick People" feel so incomplete, in contrast, settled before they begin.
The songwriting remains strong, following-up on the uncomplicated success of the group's debut LP, You, Me, We. Howie Kislowicz and Shai Korman ride the lines between genuine poetry ("And when he sings the sang / he wrote about Brazil / Well, the rainforest grows / on your window sill"), goofy non sequitur ("You're covered in mustard / weighing cake by the pound") and college-student cleverness ("Hey mister Nietzsche / I beeseech ya' / Can you tell what's up / with this ubermensch ... stuff?"). Kislowicz sings like a cuddlier Loudon Wainwright III, an earnest troubadour unabashed at the honesty (and quirkiness) of his material. If the band were only to throw themselves a few more challenges, to carry their songs somewhere other than where is anticipated within the first few bars, their confidence, jubilance and wit could produce a genuine wonder.