By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Keeping it real mediocre is Dan Bern, a folkie of some critical adoration who I believe to be a Republican plant in the anti-war movement; any feller who'd name a song "Talkin' Al Kida Blues" and actually play, sing and blow into a harmonica just like Bob Dylan circa 1964 has gotta be out to destroy from the inside. Frankly, I'd like to like Bern: The last song of his brand-new Swastika EPis "Lithuania," where our families are from; the song resonates like kin wrote it, down to the story about relatives being gunned down in the streets of Lithuania. Bern can also make you laugh--on purpose--which is rare among the self-serious and self-satisfied carrying placards with the word "Vietnam" crossed out and "Iraq" penciled in. "I had to turn in my own mom," he whines in his "Al Kida" blues. "You know what they say/Unpaid parking tickets aid terrorists." Still, that Dylan thing grates, maybe because the real thing never tried so hard.
Brit folkies Seize the Day--otherwise known as Peter, Paul and Peter--offer their own retro-bution on www.seizetheday.org; their track "United States" sounds 35 years old, and listening to it makes me feel 35 years older. Their mellow protest is just the kind of thing that gives the anti-war movement a bad name, because it bends so far backward it completely snaps in half. "I am not an Islamicist/Religion's not my thing," sing the folksmen who dress in silly costumes. "But they're friendlier than Christians/And I like the way they sing." On second thought, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it's just a joke.
In veryshocking news, available at www.handontheplow.com is the House Music Against WarEP, featuring electronica artists who couldn't get a dance-floor crowd to break a sweat, much less a bunch of pissed-off placard-wavers. Still, the damnedest of the lot is George Michael's cover of Don McLean's 1971 "The Grave" (ooof), performed so earnestly it sounds as if he's going to melt into a puddle of tears at any moment. The soldier's lament was gooey, superficial drivel first time around, and it doesn't help that Michael takes it more seriously than McLean, who thought himself as deep as the trenches of which he sang and sang and sang. Wake me up before you go-go; I fell asleep during the second verse.
Speaking of golden oldies, didn't know Chumbawumba was still around, frankly, so it was surprising to discover "Jacob's Ladder" on the Web. Turns out it's a lyrical remake of a song from the band's album Readymade, which was released last year (again, who knew?). The band exists to prove it's possible to admire a band's politics and loathe its music with equal ferocity; in other words, boring dance music about "oil for guns." Still, it's hardly the most disposable of the lot: That honor would go to Turner Prize Freak Show's strummed-down "Don't Attack Iraq," which sounds like something made up after a few bong hits (it manages to rhyme "Al Qaeda" with "Darth Vader" and concludes "we don't even have a light saber") and might have been funnier if there weren't so many giggles on it.
Most talked-about among the new wave of old guards waving the white flag is the Beastie Boys' "In a World Gone Mad," which debuted two weeks ago on beastieboys.com and even garnered some K-ROCK airplay. The track's astonishingly drab--Paul's Boutique with a "For Lease" sign hung out front--and stunningly didactic, especially from the band that once had more hits than Sadaharu Oh. Here's how Mike D kicks it: "We need health care more than going to war/You think it's democracy they're fighting for?" Yo, don't they just know Dubya's partying for his right to fight? Maybe so, since they hint at the flavor they used to savor by insisting Bush and Saddam "should kick it like back in the day/With the cocaine and Courvoisier." Not bloody likely, though the Zoolander reference later reminds they're never so funny as when they're trying to be soooo serious.
But all's not lost in the battle for hearts and eardrums: Zack de la Rocha rages against the war machine in "March of Death," a collaboration with DJ Shadow available at www.marchofdeath.com. On the site, de la Rocha offers his reasons for posting the single, which slams like a Scud: "Lies, sanctions and cruise missiles have never created a free and just society. Only everyday people can do that...I hope [the song] not only makes us think, but also inspires us to act and raise our voices."
De la Rocha, with the siren-scream "voice of a riot," does himself no favors by picking a fight with Bush: "this man child, ruthless and wild...this Texas furor" (not führer, says the lyric sheet, though given the context, de la Rocha may just be covering his ass). You think Natalie Maines has it tough, good luck getting thison a Clear Channel-owned station; I don't think Clear Channel higher-ups Tom Hicks and Lowry Mays will allow an upstart rocker to call their old pal George a "compassionless con" conducting a "high-tech drive-by." Still, this smart bomb of furious and lyrical hip-hop that recalls the days when Chuck D was Public Enemy Number One will embed itself in your brain; you may not nod your head in agreement, but you will nod it nonetheless. It's a killer.