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
You Will Go to the Moon
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.
Consider "Sahara": Its quavering mandolin and talking drum lend it the feel of a Middle Eastern trance track. Or the joyous disco sass of "I've Gotta Get a Message to You," Moxy's playful reinvention of the Bee Gees chestnut. Or the spastic cabaret oomph of "Boo Time." Or even the campy Fifties girl-group shimmer of "Your New Boyfriend." Really, there's nothing this band won't try.
Fortunately, amid the mayhem, You Will Go to the Moon -- the band's third full-length release -- also has moments of piercing quietude. "Lee" is a gorgeous piece of balladry set to a single, subdued piano and weepy strings. "Love Set Fire" cleaves the tragedy of amour to a creaking accordion. And "Lazlo's Career" is a piece of dreamy guitar pop with a mournful underbelly.
For reasons that I cannot even begin to explain -- without growing tiresome and petulant -- the band's U.S. label, Warner, has released the album's least interesting song (the jangly "Get in the Car") as the album's first single. Do not take this pedestrian track as an indication of what's in store. You Will Go to the Moon is an awesome sonic voyage.
-- Steven Almond
New York City's Ivy is the latest alternative band to pay homage to the Burt Bacharach/Hal David lexicon of classic pop and perhaps the only one so far to match its ingenious simplicity. While Apartment Life doesn't tell the listener anything especially new, it has an exquisite sense of cross-pollination and gets all the details right. Class abounds here, from elegant songs captured in lush arrangements that glide across one's consciousness with the subtle charm of a fine perfume, to the roster of guests, including members of Smashing Pumpkins, Luna, and Fountains of Wayne, among others. It's obvious that drummer-bassist Adam Schlesinger, also a member of FOW, had a large part in producing the record, as all the wonderful touchstones found on FOW's self-titled debut are also present on Apartment Life. The reverberating guitars, impossibly strong hooks, dreamy vocals, Beatles-esque melodies, and a powerful mix give the new record its presence, allowing French singer Dominique Durand's silky but small voice to skate on top without getting buried under everything else.
Durand's detached, breathlessly hollow style also provides the right counterpoint to the music's deep romanticism and dark corners, recalling the classic European cabaret tradition but with more strength than sexuality.
If there's a downside to Ivy -- and to this album -- it's that the band can be too easily be mistaken for other artists, hindering its ability to build a public identity of its own. Some of these songs could readily be attributed to Lush, Echobelly, Stereolab, or the Kostars, and as perfect as Durand is for the material, her voice may be too soft and nondescript to provide a strong point of recognition for Ivy just yet. But these are certainly minor complaints, considering the band's many merits and the fact that every song here is such a fully realized treat. Apartment Life proves that easy listening can also be challenging, fun, and terrific listening.
-- Robin Myrick
Songs From Northern Britain
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While Teenage Fanclub's familiar rippling rhythm-guitar chords resonate at the core of nearly all of the dozen tracks on Songs From Northern Britain -- in fact, singer-guitarist Norman Blake's appropriately titled "Start Again," which kicks off the new album, opens with an unaccompanied strum, just as the band's record-closing "Heavy Metal II" did on its 1990 debut A Catholic Education -- previously unexplored production touches caress and envelop the new songs, smoothing over the occasional sonic unruliness that has also helped to define the Scottish foursome's likable sound.
Those touches include lusher harmonies (notably on singer-bassist Gerard Love's glockenspiel-flecked "Ain't That Enough"), a covey of horns and a fleeting solo banjo on Blake's plaintive "I Don't Want Control of You", orchestral strings and textural keyboards on Blake and guest collaborator Francis Macdonald's languorous "Planets," a squiggly synth on singer-guitarist Raymond McGinley's buzzing "I Don't Care," a tinkly toy piano on Love's Neil Young-esque "Mount Everest," plus a blip of a Beach Boys-style vocal interlude and an intermittent little waffling sound on Love's head-bobbing "Take the Long Way Round." All good things, incidentally, because the production fillips merely serve the greater good of the each singer-songwriter's innate knack for hooky, midtempo rock-pop.
But the biggest difference on Teenage Fanclub's fifth full-length U.S. release album is very likely its collective attitude, which seems eminently more adult than the brash sneer of A Catholic Education and the nose-thumbing flippancy of its follow-up, 1992's still-remarkable Bandwagonesque. Blake, Love, and McGinley no longer find it necessary to hide behind lyrics that exude irony or snottiness, preferring instead to proffer cringe-free declarations of devotion, especially McGinley's wonderful "Your Love Is the Place Where I Come From," on which he sings, "When I'm on my own I'm lost in space/My freedom's a delusion," and Love's thumping, album-ending "Speed on Light," on which he utters the amazing line, "Only you and me add up." Also a good thing. Very good.
-- Michael Yockel