Short Cuts

Chumbawamba
Tubthumper
(Republic/Universal)

Chumbawamba must be as surprised as anyone that they've scored a Top 10 single with "Tubthumping," that irresistible pop ditty with the rousing chorus, "I get knocked down/But I get up again/You're never gonna keep me down." Just last week it hit No. 7 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart. Not bad for a group of eight anarcho-Dadaists who've been doodling in the margins of Britain's political punk scene for more than a decade.

British college kids have long loved Chumbawamba for its anti-everything attitude. The band has a reputation for staging absurdist pranks (at a 1985 Clash concert, a lone Chumba gunned down the band with paint balls) and for its serious political activism (supporting miners' strikes, participating in anti-NATO protests, and engaging in countless other actions). Chumbawamba has often dabbled in dance and pop music, always in an effort to broadcast its politics to a wider audience.

Tubthumper is the group's most successful hybrid of accessible tunes and acerbic lyrics to date, thanks largely to Alice Nutter, whose pleasant voice leads most of the songs. While "Tubthumping" is indeed the album's standout track, there are other terrific numbers here as well. "Drip Drip Drip" is a catchy tune that attacks greedy slumlords, and "One by One" is a bitter (and very pretty) hymn to union leaders who sell out their constituents. Other songs -- "I Want More" and "The Good Ship Lifestyle" -- are just as infectious and just as scabrous. It seems unlikely that Americans would care for such overt polemicizing, but Chumbawamba is currently selling more albums in the U.S. than the Spice Girls or Puff Daddy. Looks like the band's pop and politics combo has finally worked.

"Smalltown" is the album's most original and personal piece, a nice blend of jungle beats and Sade-style jazz. But aside from that track, Tubthumper draws entirely from the disposable pop of the Eighties: bright little horns, crispy guitars, machine-enhanced drums. It's a dated sound but a fun one, and Chumbawamba knows it. "Amnesia" sounds like a Jesus Jones tune with its ham-fisted beat and big chorus. Yet as the title suggests, it's actually a Chomsky-ish tirade against our ephemeral modern culture: "You sing the same old verse/Stick like glue for better or worse." Chumbawamba's anti-everything attitude, it seems, extends even to itself.

-- Rafer Guzman

The Delta 72
The Soul of a New Machine
(Touch and Go)

It's been about 35 years since rock and roll downsized to become just rock. Back then a wave of mostly white pop bands stole the scene from Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley, and rock and roll sold its revolutionary soul for Beatles boots that trampled everything in sight. For reasons that are likely rooted in demographics and marketing, few bands even attempt to rock, roll, pop, and swing any more, but the Delta 72 is a notable exception.

On its second release, The Soul of a New Machine, the Philadelphia-based quartet plays unbridled rock and roll with a passion that's nearly out of fashion. The dozen songs on the disc betray no trace of modern malaise, no technological detachment, and no postmodern indifference; they include no sound collages, no attempts to incorporate elements of jungle/trip-hop/drum 'n' bass, and no overt stabs at a retro-chic image. Instead the band plays well-crafted songs with lots of enthusiasm. Period. Imagine that.

The new album opens with a driving rave-up, "Introduction (Part 2)," setting the tone for the rest of the disc. On that number Bruce Reckahn's warm-and-fuzzy bass buoys a round of percussive handclaps and straight-ahead drumming by Jason Kourkounis, as Gregg Foreman's guitar slashes through the mix and Sarah Stolfa's Farfisa organ skates around the perimeter. Together they twist and shout, ebb and flow, and rip and shred like Booker T and the MGs in a hurricane. Songs such as "Floorboard Shake," "Blow Out," and "Go Go Kitty" are mostly instrumental and pretty much follow the same formula, although none of them ever sounds formulaic. Although the "machine" isn't necessarily new, the Delta 72 definitely has soul.

-- John Lewis

Moxy FrYvous
You Will Go to the Moon
(Bottom Line)

It's not hard to call this the best pop record released in 1997, because, in fact, it may be the best pop album released in several years. There is nothing, it seems, that this Canadian quartet can't do. All four members sing lead vocals, and they harmonize beautifully. All four play multiple instruments (no, not at the same time). Most important, all four share a passion for pushing the limits of pop craftsmanship.

"Michigan Militia" is a perfect example. It opens with a burst of banjo by guitarist Dave Matheson and a huge hip-hop drum loop courtesy of drummer Jian Ghomeshi, before seguing into a surging chorus that calls to mind the Manhattan Transfer. Over all this joyous clamor we hear vocalist Mike Ford delivering what is surely the strangest musical birthday card in the history of epistles: "Happy birthday Tricia, I'm in the Michigan militia/Fighting for your honor, like any Afrikaner/Pack the double barrel, I think it goes with your apparel." A survivalist love song? With Moxy FrYvous, anything is possible.

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