Folk Album Review: Rebel Folk

Though the last presidential race has faded into a memory, two recent albums from singer-songwriters bring subtle artistry to simmering political anger and alienation.

Pierce Woodward, “Blow Them Away” (Long Run Music); James McMurtry, “Childish Things” (Compadre Records)

By Danielle Dreilinger

A year ago, folk stages were filled with artists like Steve Earle urging people to vote — preferably for the non-incumbent. Now the presidential race has faded into a memory as faint as the Red Sox championship and hurricane benefits have replaced political fundraisers. But protest songs haven’t disappeared. Instead, two recent albums hone their anger to reap rewards even for listeners who disagree.

Pierce Woodward didn’t start out with this skill. 2003’s “Leave No Millionaire Behind” often found him singing slogans. But despite some occasional lyrical clunkiness, “Blow Them Away” is a big advance towards subtlety. Woodward turns polemic into art by using classic “show-don’t-tell” techniques to illustrate political anger and alienation. “Palestine Hotel” imagines the play-by-play of a military attack on international journalists. “Dramamine Drowsy” captures a traveler’s radical disorientation as he returns from the developing world to news reports of Abu Ghraib.

Woodward doesn’t stick to the front pages. He wrestles with the tensions politics insert into personal relationships. In the low-key pop song “Spiritual Healer,” the singer tussles with a woman on such issues as the path her life should take and the ways she can create change. The two activists in “Quaker Love” might be perfect for each other — if only their missions didn’t keep them geographically separate and too busy for cozy Sunday snuggling.

The album also shows some wry humor– a sure antidote to sloganeering. For sheer entertainment value, you can’t beat the throwaway line, “I may be a leftist, but I cook a kick-ass breakfast.” “Holy War” pounds forward like a fiddle-and-banjo Sousa march as it calls for a consumerist jihad, gibing, “My dog respects me and my TV protects me.” (In Woodward’s vision, the TV remote equals “the button.”)

That banjo, along with Woodward’s other musical choices, complicates his study of U.S. actions. Armed with a banjo in the Pete Seeger tradition, he’s grounded in American old-time music. “Holy War” incorporates a string-band composition by his former bandmate Tao Rodriguez-Seeger of the Mammals. Woodward also dips into another American sound — a deceptively easy-listening keyboard that can smooth any lyric, even an anti-revisionist critique such as “You look at Nixon with nostalgia/ And we know what that asshole did” in the song “So.”

An old German protest song declares “my thoughts are free” but sounds as soothing as a lullaby. “Dramamine Drowsy” has a terrifically catchy chorus: “I saw the pictures from behind the prison wall.” In short, you find yourself nodding your head to the music no matter what you think of the message. The combination is uneasy but necessary if political music wants to appeal beyond the choir.

James McMurtry’s “Childish Things” is as thoroughly political as “Blow Them Away.” At least, that’s the impression you get from the album’s press and McMurtry’s blog. Moreover, Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders has adopted “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” as his theme song for the 2006 Senate race. However, the marketing is deceptive. As it turns out, “Can’t Make It Here” is pretty much the only pure political song on the album. It’s an interesting shift in strategy: whereas in the recent past artists might sneak a political song into an album, McMurtry puts it front and center. (The Waco Brothers’s “Freedom and Weep” also proclaims its politics on the cover but consists largely of relationship songs.) Does this mean that protest music is hot?

Well, “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” deserves the attention. The rambling, sardonic rampage ties war policy with anti-globalization economics and equates drugs with religion. (Opiate of the masses?) Although the song’s characters verge on stereotype, their vivid images personify polemic: a Vietnam vet begging on the highway median, the ex-textile mill workers who have left a bar bereft of regulars, a teenager who dreams of becoming the stars she sees in pop magazines. You’d have difficulty memorizing all seven minutes, but the song has the power of an anthem.

As with Woodward, the tune’s power is rooted in description, which unites this song with the others on the album. Along with the slow burn of “Can’t Make It,” the Texan singer-songwriter hits his strongest points as a musical poet of the kind of dusty town landscapes that flicker from ’70s movies on weekend TV. The dour “Six-Year Drought” dwells on feverish fire ants and tire ruts. “The Old Part of Town” turns the engine over and digs its spurs in, crunching an electric-guitar and saloon piano lick as McMurtry lionizes the threadbare neighborhood where “in the hours after midnight they stop keeping tabs.” On a darker note, “Charlemagne’s Home Town” pairs mournful accordion with grim lyrics about the cigarette-choked apartment of a newly single man. The musical backdrop also ties the album together — ambling Americana rock dominated by warm-toned guitars that groove against McMurtry’s largely monotone melodies.

Outside of track three, politics almost never poke through this fabric. The album kicks off with a song that expresses McMurtry’s childhood desire to see an elephant, a beast who appears to be innocent of political affiliation. If there’s a political subtext to the marauding-bear song “Slew Foot,” a duet with Joe Ely, I’m missing it. (It’s a bit of a stretch to imagine that the bear who’s never been caught or treed symbolizes the independent American.) Even on the title track, an image of howling wolves seems to express childhood nightmares, not social plaints. In fact, that song’s narrator even gets a little burned-out and hopeless: “I don’t care/All I want now is just a comfortable chair.”

Still, with the political bull’s-eye always in the listener’s metaphorical sights, it’s hard to take the nostalgia songs straight, particularly when McMurtry praises the staunch American traditions of driving, sweating, and fighting with your family (no hard feelings) in “Memorial Day.” The song has patriotic parade snare-drum rolls, and calls America “the land of the free.” How much of this is serious, and how much sarcastic? The album closes with a more somber “Holiday” — a solo acoustic guitar narrative covering roadside wrecks, ice-slick pavement, and an Iowa National Guardsman in his mid-40s who’s being sent to Iraq. The narrator states that a deadly spirit “stalks through our days.” At that moment, sunny Memorial Day doesn’t seem cheerful at all.

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