Sunday, June 24, 2012

CD Odyssey Disc 411: Chumbawamba

At Disc 411, it would have been very cool if this review had been for Beck’s 2006 album, “The Information” but I reviewed that way back at Disc 150.  That album had no hits, but this next review had one I’m sure everyone will remember.

Disc 411 is…Tubthumper 
Artist: Chumbawamba

Year of Release: 1997

What’s up with the Cover?  A disturbing wide-mouthed baby leers at us from the corner of an otherwise pleasant green album cover.  I don’t think babies are too photogenic at the best of times, and giving one a split-mouthed leering grin full of fake teeth doesn’t help any.  This cover is not only a poor effort at art it is downright unpleasant to look at.

How I Came To Know It: There’s this song called “Tubthumping.”  You may not know it by the title, but you’ll know it when someone starts singing “he drinks a whisky drink, he drinks a vodka drink, he drinks a lager drink, he drinks a cider drink.”  Yeah – that song.  So I bought this album for one song, which I don’t usually do, and for good reason.

How It Stacks Up:  I have only this one Chumbawamba album.  I fully expect that there are Chumbawamba devotees out there with several more, but I am not one of them and won’t become one anytime soon.

Rating: 2 stars.

Sometimes a record can be too clever for its own good, and that is case with “Tubthumper.”

This record shows flashes of true talent, not the least of which is the memorable, entertaining and thoroughly party-inducing “Tubthumping.”  The way this song can make you feel inspired about an all-night drunk, and at the same time infuse that celebration with an air of desperation is both subtle and successful.

Have you ever been to that party where you stayed an hour too late, and when things started to get uncomfortable you were unable to locate a cab?  You end up standing in the doorway with your coat on for half an hour, awkwardly making small talk before finally deciding to walk home.  Chances are not only have you experienced this, but your memories of that party won’t be that part at the end, but rather something  humorous or entertaining that happened earlier in the evening.  That’s what “Tubthumping” makes me think of – our selective memories filtering out only the good experiences.  Or as the song says,

“He sings the songs that remind him of the good times
He sings the songs that remind him of the better times.”

Then, right at the end the song loses me, morphing into a strange 45 second excerpt of music wholly unrelated to the earlier song, that isn't nearly as enjoyable to listen to.  Sadly, this self-indulgent, self-absorbed, ‘look how clever we are’ moment is subsequently employed on almost every other song.

The musical style of the album is a thin slice of rock and roll, mixed with a thick wedge of dance music, but Chumbawamba clearly don’t see themselves as a dance band.  They seem to identify as a political protest band (I think I read/heard somewhere that their other albums are much more focused in this direction, but don’t know for sure).

So even though there are a few other songs that have great energy, vocals, composition and melodies (“Amnesia” and “Scapegoat” are particularly good in this regard), they have these weird musical post-scripts to deliberately knock you out of your groove.  It is like Chumbawamba is worried that their songs are too catchy, and that you might miss that they are singing about serious topics.

Except that their lyrics are not particularly good.  They try to tackle serious topics like economic theory, poverty and class warfare, but the way they approach their subject matter is both dated and awkward.  There are bright spots where they do a slightly better job of social commentary, particularly “The Big Issue” but overall, the message just seems poorly suited for dance-hall production.

I enjoy protest rock, but it is much better handled by artists like Billy Bragg, Steve Earle or even the Dropkick Murphys.  None of these are dance music (OK, maybe the Dropkick Murphys, but a very different type of dance music in their case).  I’m not saying you can’t do it with dance music, but I think you have to really nail it to make it work, and Chumbawamba miss the mark.

Instead, they’ve written some very enjoyable pop hooks – songs that can fill a dance floor on a slow night, and then have done everything in their power (preachy lyrics, weird 30-60 second fade outs to each song, awkward dialogue samples) to clear the floor before anyone has too much fun.

When “Tubthumping” blew up into a huge hit back in 1997, the band was clearly conflicted about their newfound fame.  This was a band that had made seven albums previous to this one – and to their credit, they’ve gone on to make nine more since (thank you, Wikipedia).  They must have a very good idea of who they were, and when they received all kinds of attention, and invitations to various awards shows, they looked uncomfortable, and even a little bit cranky.  They wanted to be taken seriously, not treated like a novelty act – at least that’s how it came across to me.

That could have happened, except that the album itself is too much of a mash-up of various notions to be able to deliver any cohesive message.  “Tubthumper” has promise, but to truly deliver it had to get off its soap box, and write songs that were less clever, and more heartfelt.

Best tracks:  Tubthumping, Amnesia, Scapegoat.

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