Street Gospels, Bedouin Soundclash’s third album (really their second in the public eye), solidifies any unease we might have about appropriation of other cultures’ traditions to the pointless protest of suburban Western kids. At least Vampire Weekend are upfront about their Graceland love; and at least they veer towards the personal/reminiscent side of the lyrical spectrum. That’s why Afro-pop songs about Benetton and Provincetown work (as did Paul Simon’s original songs about sleeping under Broadway and cinematographer’s parties, in the first place). Actually, all listening to Bedouin Soundclash really makes me want to do is turn back to Paul Simon’s music, where it all began, and with so much more finesse.
OK, maybe Bedouin Soundclash aren’t quite that derivative most of the time. Their radio-rock reggae sound, scrubbed clean with its chiming, slick-produced guitars and stock-standard dub beats, will no doubt appeal to some when it’s heard over the end credits to a Grey’s Anatomy or OC-wannabe. And for the jocks-n-American Eagle concertgoing set, the group’s had a steady stream of lighters-in-the-air ballads and singalong anthems to keep even the greenest frat brother happy. The band’s protester-friendly stance isn’t as fist-pumping as, say, Michael Franti; at the same time, they’re less all-embracing of hedonism than a group like Cat Empire. So we’re left in something of a no-man’s land, where even singer Jan Malinowski’s complexion makes the band’s roots reggae sound pale in comparison with the real thing: as if you were wondering, Bob Marley these guys ain’t.
In fact, the music on Street Gospels is scrubbed so clean it resembles more of a civilized boarding school discussion than anything with the raw feeling of a street protest. Call it Political Protest for Dummies, or at least for Kids Who Can’t Read Good: on “Walls Fall Down”, for instance: “Governor of the land, from where you stand… / There is a storm, and you’ve locked the door / On people you once were you gave a war”. Forget the tortuous grammar—in actuality, when you’re listening to the song it’s the confluence of it all that hits hardest. Like a K’naan or Gomez with all edge removed, Bedouin Soundclash’s U2 guitars and easy echoed vocals will be praised as irresistible by some, condemned as bland by others. Hey, that’s music.
Defenders of the band—and I’ve defended bands like this in the past—will say, who cares about the derivative nature of the music if it’s so fun to listen and dance to? There’s some validity in this argument, especially if you’re not a cynical, burnt-out music reviewer who doesn’t have time to enjoy music, only to criticize. But wah wah aside, Bedouin Soundclash may be playing the same role in Canada as bands like Dave Matthews/Ben Harper in the U.S. and Cat Empire in Australia. In this context, the everything’s gonna be alright/don’t worry, be happy vibe of “Trinco Dog” thrills with the same energy as something like “The Night That Never End” from Two Shoes, though here the reggae seems a bit less authentic, the chord progressions (including that blatant major second rise) a bit more tired.
And that’s a problem, because if Bedouin Soundclash are really going to silence critics who scream “derivative!”, they need to find the energy to plow through. Overall, Street Gospels seems a bit sedate; the latter portion of the album’s shrouded in echoes, as on the “I Shot the Sheriff”-style “Midnight Rocker”. And though this can turn out unexpectedly sweet/affecting (as on the chorus of “Hearts in the Night”), more often than not it feels a bit flat.
What’s hardest is “St. Andrews”, which opens with a riff ripped straight from Simon’s “Under African Skies”, transposed up a tone. And “Hush”, whose white-boy Gospel doesn’t have a patch on the call-response weariness of “Homeless”. But looking upward, at least Street Gospels can be praised for one thing: I’ve rediscovered Graceland, been listening to it a bunch over the past few weeks. What a brilliant record that is.