You have to hand it to Leeds-based anarchist band Chumbawamba, it takes some serious guts to plug away for 15-odd years under the auspices of recreating themselves anew with every new record they put out. But then again, Chumbawamba has never been a band that has shied away from challenging situations. In fact, they seem to thrive on it. In their original incarnation as a Crass-inspired punk band, Chumbawamba characterized themselves by their commitment to forging creative resistance to authority, and though their sound has changed dramatically over the years, this playfully antagonistic spirit is the common thread that connects them to their squatter days in Leeds. And it seems that this thread has worked well for the band, binding them together thematically, despite their constantly-changing sound and their tenuous relationship with fame.
A lesser band who had the same overwhelming success that Chumbawamba did with the chart-topping pop ditty “Tubthumper” would have spent the following years bending over backwards to hold on to that spotlight, more than likely sacrificing both their integrity and identity in the process. But not so with Chumbawamba. This bunch of troopers has managed to ride out both sides of the pop-fame roller coaster with their sense of purpose intact. While their initial punk contemporaries from the ‘80s have burned out and their more recent pop fellows are busy gathering the crumbs of short lived success, Chumbawamba is still chugging along as ever, churning out critiques of globalization and late stage-capitalism dressed up in sweet pop melodies.
The careful balance between social commentary and populist technique is what has allowed Chumbawamba to succeed where other, more obnoxiously political bands have failed. While their critique has been uniformly scathing throughout their tenure as a band, their commitment to creative presentation has kept the band from becoming overly pedantic. This holds true for Un as it did for their previous record, Readymades, and Then Some. But where Readymades paid tribute to English folk music in order to achieve their ends, Un goes global, integrating Latin American, Polynesian, and Cuban styles into their sound. Though their essential Englishness is always evident somewhere in the mix, the addition of these lively World-Beat rhythms gives Un a feeling of borderlessness that works well with the band’s anarchistic M.O.
The record opens up with what has become a telltale sign of a Chumbawamba song, a playfully cryptic and scratchy sample, this time from the childhood nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. It soon becomes clear that image of the lamb blindly following Mary everywhere is meant to connote the unholy alliance between music and commerce. “The Wizard of Menlo Park” is a charming little ditty that in classic Chumbawamba fashion, packs a lyrical punch behind its fluffy exterior, blasting corporate music culture in between a sweetly whistling keyboard hook and melodic guitar strumming. “Just Desserts” is a bit weaker, mixing tribal-sounding drums with a Middle Eastern string track in a catchy but ultimately unremarkable fashion.
“On eBay” utilizes the World/Modern combination to better a better end, combining a spirited Brazilian stomp-strum combination with a cheerfully droning accordion and some high energy chanting. Lyrically, the song serves as a scathing criticism of the looting of Iraqi national treasures after the initial invasion of the long suffering country. But while the dirty laundry list is long and verbally unadorned, it gets an ironic lift from the background chorus that sings “Sad so sad,” in the most cheerful fashion possible-perhaps a nod to the feigned regret of British and American troops that as expressed after they were caught standing idly by while artifacts from the cradle of civilization get carried off from “Babylon back to Babylon”.
“Everything You Know Is Wrong” is smugly clever in a similar fashion. Preceded by a sample of a very serious-sounding man talking about an Indiana minister who claimed that playing the theme song to Mr. Ed backwards reveals a voice that states “Satan is the Source”, the song is concerned with misinformation in its many forms. A monologue performed over an acoustic guitar is punctuated with blips that seem to ring out with every other word, evoking an image of overly-enthusiastic censorship that has a particular resonance in these days where war against a faceless terrorist enemy justifies the sanitation of even everyday speech. “Everything you know is wrong / There’s a verse missing out of this song” sing the ladies gleefully over light staccato chords.
“Be with You” employs Latin American classical guitar to good effect in a particularly pretty pop love song. “When Fine Society Sits Down to Dine” is another, rather silly Latin-inspired number concerned with the exploitative nature of bourgeois culture. It opens with a clip of Pacifica radio vigilante Amy Goodman opening up an episode of Democracy Now, introducing a group of revolutionary Zapatistas and finds a funny niche in its cautionary chorus, “When fine society sits down to dine / Remember that someone is pissing in the wine.” Sadly, many of the tracks on Un, while also impassioned and coy, fail to stand up on their own, receding into a mild background for the more interesting tunes.
Overall, the very best that can be said about Un is that it succeeds in maintaining the band’s status quo. However, this is no small feat considering how long Chumbawamba has been in the game. Their tried and true formula of combining wit, criticism, and creativity lives on in this record even as their mode of presentation has once again made a substantial shift.
// Notes from the Road
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