Mixing Pop and Politics
Post 9/11 pronouncements on the death of irony may have been grossly exaggerated. In spite of a scare (because of a scare?), those urbane and always well-dressed companions Cynicism and Ironic Detachment appear to be alive and well and striding pretty confidently along the major thoroughfares of the Western world. Which leaves less au courant attitudes, such as sincerity and earnestness, hanging out in the seedier margins, looking for crumbs. Lip service is sometimes paid to them, but ultimately they embarrass us. Don’t believe me? Two words: Jewel, Bono.
Large-cause benefit albums are nothing new: the late ‘60s/early ‘70s spawned the Concert for Bangladesh, the late ‘70s Madison Square Garden’s No Nukes concerts, Live Aid in the ‘80s, and the Tibetan Freedom Concerts last decade. It’s undeniable that they have achieved varying degrees of success. But catch an artist “seeking some more relevance than spotlight and applause” (in Billy Bragg’s memorable phrase), and any cachet of cool they may once have had begins to slip away. Still don’t believe me? Two more words: Gabriel, Sting.
Granted, you could throw words like Dylan, or Strummer back at me, but the point remains that there seems to be a deep mistrust towards artists who care. Or appear to care. (See how easy it is to lapse into cynicism?)
And yet we value artists for their very ability to filter consensus reality in new and interesting ways, so why so hard on them when they occasionally turn their unique visions toward (perceived) injustice, however awkward they appear? To tell the truth, I’m not really sure, but I hereby pledge to try to drop any faux disdain I may have picked up along the way, and to attempt this review of Respond II without knee-jerking all over the inevitable earnestness that may well be inherent in such undertakings.
All sales proceeds of this two-CD set are donated to RESPOND, Inc. and the Family Violence Prevention Fund, both of which are dedicated to ending domestic violence in the U.S. and around the world. The first Respond CD (Signature Sounds, 1999) featured a very limited selection of musical styles and genres, with local (Boston) country-folk female singer-songwriters predominant. This follow-up attempts to be more inclusive—in a musical sense, if not a gender politics sense—showcasing punk, indie rock, folk, country, alt-country, bluegrass, blues, gospel, Latin pop, R&B, and world music. And there are Big Important Names here, too. All of which moves the project away from a precious parochialism toward a potentially wider audience.
First, let’s get the predictable out of the way. Would anyone be surprised by the inclusion here of Suzanne Vega’s altogether apt “Luka”, for instance? Or that Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, Aimee Mann, and Joan Baez (earnest, right?) all donate solid, worthy songs? Yet there are unexpected moments. Sleater-Kinney stand out like long-dried bubblegum on a marble statue with their raucous, sly admonishment “You’re No Rock N’ Roll Fun”, and grown-up Indie kids Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly try to right wrongs with the skewed, pretty “Spain” and the bittersweet, melodic “Last Rain” respectively. Neko Case weighs in with a warm, circumspect “I Wish I Was the Moon” from 2002’s excellent Blacklisted, and self-described “blue wave” (blues and new wave) artist Monique Ortiz breaks the mold with the gauche “Black Feather Wings”. Anjélique Kidjo pulls out all the joyful stops with the Afro-pop “Tumba” while Bebel Gilberto’s restrained bossa nova groove “Sem Contenção” disdains melodrama for cool. Ani DiFranco is immense on “So What”, an introspective folk/blues lament that collapses into soft jazz valium moments rather than face its own vulnerability—capturing with admirable nuance the wretched poignancy of continuing to love someone who continues to hurt you. Indeed, very few of these songs resort to stridency or hectoring (exception being Sweet Honey in the Rock’s humorless a cappella “Run”).
Traditional tastes are catered to by Dolly Parton’s pure bluegrass “Endless Stream of Tears”, Wannetta Jackson’s standard smooth jazz/R&B “More Love”, Baez’s surprisingly fresh “Lily” and by the straightforward electric blues of Boston-based Toni Lynn Washington (“Good Things Come to Those Who Wait”) or Odetta’s folk-wisdom honky-tonk blues “You Gotta Know How”.
Indeed, despite understandable attempts to broaden its scope, the Boston/Cambridge area remains well represented on Respond II. From the understated chilly blues cradle-rock of Susan Tedeschi’s “Looking For Answers” through the haunted alt-country “Chief” by Patty Griffin to Deb Talan’s exquisitely low-key and melodic “Ashes on Your Eyes”—along with the aforementioned Jackson and Washington—the impression is of a plethora of local singer-songwriters who provide a remarkably cohesive body of offerings, taken collectively.
But there are also relative “stars” here, and although they would doubtless relate to that other apt Bragg couplet—“mixing pop and politics he asks me what the use is / I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses”—they nonetheless acquit themselves well on the whole. As already alluded to, this collection is notable in that polemics are, for the most part, eschewed in favour of musical and emotional connection. Sure, there’s nothing particularly “edgy” or “experimental” going on here, but if we leave irony at the door, settle in front of a real crackling fireplace on a frigid night, pour something warming and intoxicating into our glass, and let these songs wrap around us in their yearning and their mostly understated disappointment at human frailty, we may appreciate these sweet-sour tasters, even if only for a single winter vacation weekend in a year.
It would be easy to take potshots at the post-Lilith sisters-in-solidarity sub-text (and come on, guys, if there’s ever a Respond III, ferchrissakes let’s get the other half of this tragic equation involved too, not in shame but in harmony) except that this very listenable collection of 32 earnest (uh-huh), sincere (yes, but also sorrowful, playful, mournful, wrenching, gentle, tentative, gutsy, etc.) songs doesn’t feel all that divisive really, not when listened to with an open mind and an even larger heart.
[If you’re still unsure, and don’t want your money to end up in the gender-politics quagmire, know that at least a portion of the proceeds will go to children’s service programs. Thus, you get music, and some sad kids who’ve seen way too much get help. For more, see RESPOND, Inc. and Family Violence Prevention Fund.]