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CD Review: Chumbawamba, ABCDEFG


Chumbawamba
ABCDEFG
[No Masters Co-operative/Westpark Music (2010)]

The five core members of song-making\activist collective Chumbawamba have used the occasion of their 25th anniversary to reflect on some of the various uses and misuses of music. Their light-footed historical jig brings the comforting hot spiced cider melodies and lovely harmonies associated with folk clubs, alternately swinging like the demon jazz undergoing national withdrawal during the shellac shortage of WWII that halted the only economic growth sector (aside from war machinery). Namely: phonograph records. [Full details in The Deejays: How the tribal chieftains of radio got to where they’re at by Arnold Passman, MacMillan 1971.] The skiffle-inclined as well as the atonal will have moments of communion.

Chumbawamba warmly animates the neo-realism and agit-prop of Bertolt Brecht’s musical theater, while updating it with “Torturing James Hetfield.” The Metallica leader expressed his pleasure after the 2003 U.S./UK invasion of Iraq and the revelation that U.S. Psychological Operations were using Metallica’s “Sandman” played at punishing volume to stripped, sleepless and sensory deprived Iraqi prisoners: “If the Iraqis aren’t used to freedom, then I’m glad to be part of their exposure.” This brings down upon Hetfield a karmic fantasia in which he is stripped bound and forced to listen to Chumbawamba’s Greatest Hits (there was only one) until he gives up the names sought—“It was Lars . . . ”

Chumbawamba and their speakeasy sassy musical cohort keep these amusing, often sharply thought-inducing tunes short yet not bereft of sentiment. A song describing a survivor of the Nazi death camps disrupting a performance of a Wagner opera in an Israeli concert hall by use of football rattle and drum makes no cerebral detached dialectic on the merits of, or problems posed by, absolute freedom of expression, it just feels the pain that drove this man to his act of civil disobedience and forcible removal. Chumbawamba’s valuable accompanying lyric booklet usefully adds an introductory note to “Wagner at the Opera” for the benefit of historically impoverished music lovers: “In 1850 Wagner wrote his notorious essay Judaism and Music, one of the most notorious anti-Semitic tracts ever written. This essay—which championed extreme German nationalism against a ‘pernicious’ Jewish influence—took on greater importance when a young Adolf Hitler became an avid disciple of Wagner.”

Chumbawamba checks out with “Dance Idiot, Dance,” where again the CD booklet’s concise intro note informs us of the intriguing back-story. It seems this savage parody ballad was inspired by a recent tactic employed by the UK’s own exponents of extreme nationalism, the British National Party. As Folk Against Fascism exposed, the BNP leader Nick Griffin had quite a crush on British folk thrush Kate Rusby, prompting him to encourage all BNP regional rec clubs and youth centers to get into local folk events such as festivals and re-enactments. This curious subset of the theme of ridiculing the human impulse to try and preserve historical authenticity in authentic folk songs runs through ABCDEFG with hilarious (and often wise) results.

A quip by acoustic guitar sharpie Martin Simpson on a radio broadcast sums it up. Answering a comment asserting there are people who want to keep folk music faithfully traditional thereby preserving it and putting it up on a shelf, Simpson replied “that’s not music…that’s a pickle.” [www.chumba.com]

—Mitch Ritter (Beaverton, OR)

[Edit: Misattributed the final quote to “Taylor” rather than Simpson. Martin Simpson made this remark.]

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