[4 May 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Three5Human’s name stems from two centuries ago when black Americans were counted as “three-fifths” a person towards representation in the House of Representatives. The music on A Swig from the Acid Bottle is a catharsis of such social injustices that, sadly, haven’t so much vanished as become ingrained in the U.S. consciousness. Toni Martin and Tricia Meade, the creative force behind Three5Human, succinctly characterize the capricious climate of race relations on “Corporate Killers”— “I met a man from Washington / With the power to change it all / I asked if I could be of help / But being black seemed to make him stall”.
“Being black” also made music industry executives “stall” when Martin and Meade courted major labels a few years back. The Atlanta-based duo was constantly referred to record companies’ “urban” departments, even though their music was, and is, clearly immersed in rock. A Swig from the Acid Bottle, Three5Human’s third album, is a gripping patchwork of political and personal treatises that rebuffs the short-sightedness of anyone who would confine Three5Human to an urban/R&B box. Those major label executives might have heard Three5Human but they didn’t listen.
Needless to say, A Swig from the Acid Bottle is not the happiest record you’ll hear in 2007. War and “big, bold-faced lies” are among the topics Meade and Martin explore on the album’s 12 tracks. “Baby Eyes”, “The Ones”, and “Corporate Killers”, for example, focus on the fallacies engineered by governments and corporations in the name of democracy. Scrawled across the CD inlay is a provocative declaration: “Vietnam, Iraq. Symptoms of the same disease: unchecked ambition.” Three5Human make a convincing case for this particular argument on a pair of tracks, “Blood on the Ground” and a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Front Line”. Martin’s voltaic guitar work is a suitable backdrop for the horrors of war. He wrings the rock out of Wonder’s 1982 hit, which tells a Vietnam vet’s traumatic story about serving in the cross fire. “Blood on the Ground” brings the story to the present day and itemizes the symptoms of “unchecked ambition”: misery, poverty, suicide, genocide, and a divided nation.
“Baby Eyes”, however, is the antidote to the very palpable angst on “Front Line” and “Blood on the Ground”, empowering the listener to transcend the strife that so defines 2007. Fronting a driving rhythm section, which includes Tres Gilbert on bass and Joey Williams on drums, Meade encourages:
You can believe that you have the power
You can receive if you surrender this hour
You can believe that there is real love
Break the chain and fly free as a dove
Though the music and subject matter indicate otherwise, the message on “Baby Eyes” is pacifistic. Three5Human do more than point fingers, they offer a solution to the problem, which gives the visceral discordance of the other tracks a bit more weight.
Taking a detour from the politically charged material, Meade and Martin offer “Perfect Dream”, the most accessible song on A Swig from the Acid Bottle. Penned by Meade, “Perfect Dream” beams Three5Human’s sound through a prism of radio-friendly pop. It has the type of melody that lingers long after hearing the song, and offers a reprieve from the blistering rock of the politically oriented material.
The most riveting performance on the album features Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls. (The Indigo Girls were early champions of Three5Human and invited Meade and Martin on tour. Amy Ray also guests on “Genocidal Youth”.) The tactile contrast of Saliers’ crystalline voice with the raspiness of Meade’s on “Disco Ragdoll”, a thunderous ballad of a song, is particularly gripping as the vocalists posit, “Does anyone wonder / Where did she go? / Is she still among us? / Will she be missed / If the answer is no?” The way Saliers and Meade weave their voices around the melody, with such different techniques, is one of the highlights of the album.
The only demerit about A Swig from the Acid Bottle is that its ferocity, while very compelling, lends itself to a very specific mood. Like System of a Down, though, much of Three5Human’s music is propelled by anger and raising awareness about issues that listeners might not otherwise consider or be exposed to. There’s no shortage of passion emanating from Meade and Martin’s performances and, ultimately, that’s what sells A Swig from the Acid Bottle. Anyone who cares about music, especially as a force of change, is strongly encouraged to take a “swig” from Three5Human’s choleric cocktail.