[6 August 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
You can tell what the politics behind Atlanta psychedelic/hip-hop/neo-soul/rock outfit the Constellations are just by looking at the cover art for their sophomore album, Do It for Free. The image that graces the front is one of Benjamin Franklin blindfolded by an American flag with the words “99 percent” gracing the very bottom of the jewel case. So, yes, the Constellations clearly dig the Occupy movement, which, in a sense, is a little unfortunate as this already dates the album some—Occupy, at least in this listeners’ mind, is already so 2011 and well in the past (even though the protest does still linger on in some areas). However, this is part of the band’s brand for singer Elijah Jones was actually a bona-fide member of Occupy Atlanta last fall and even wrote about his experiences for Atlanta’s alt-weekly, Creative Loafing. If you click on that link and read the piece, though, you won’t really garner much of an understanding behind what Jones was doing in the movement or what his thoughts were about it—the article is pretty vapid and vague. That lack of depth, alas, carries over to Do It for Free because, aside from the track “Let’s Get Paid”, there really isn’t much that is overtly political to be found on the record. To be fair, maybe the bulk of the songs were written before Occupy gathered force, so that might be a bit of a bad-mannered criticism. Clearly, though, the band wants to position itself on the left and part of the everyman’s struggle, so you would think that they would have a lot more to say on the subject. It is, indeed, rather strange that Do It for Free isn’t very political at all on the lyrics sheet.
Aligning oneself with Occupy might be a controversial move—you risk alienating part of the listenership that doesn’t have a huge beef with the so-called “one percent” (though I have a suspicion that the Constellations probably just don’t care about those people). But since the album’s release, the only major blip the group has registered is a recent press release bemoaning the fact that their video for “Afterparty” got pulled from YouTube, despite the fact that the video features profanity, images of drug abuse and full frontal nudity, clearly violating the site’s terms of service. (If you’re now remotely curious, and want to see the video, you have to log in at vevo.com and then search for the song.) I hate to break it to the Constellations, but kvetching about getting your video banned is kinda very 1990 and MTV-ish. However, there might be a reason for getting all haughty with YouTube: the band clearly has lost some traction since releasing their debut Southern Gothic. Indeed, the initial round of reviews for Do It for Free have been pretty mediocre and tepid as far as I can tell, and the band has been accused of simply trying to recapture lightning in a bottle a second time without moving too far afield from the first album’s influences. I do think that may be a little harsh, and, if strictly taken on its own terms outside of the context of Southern Gothic, Do It for Free is actually a generally pretty enjoyable stab of neo-soul and ‘70s AM radio-style rock. There are some clearly catchy songs, and a general party-like atmosphere overlays the proceedings, making for a fairly fun and bouncy record. This is the type of music that—outside of the likes of a Sharon Jones or a Mayer Hawthorne—isn’t really being made very much anymore. For that, Do It for Free is a welcome bon-bon of delicious retro numbers with a twist of the present (there are hints of freestyle hip-hop in Jones’ singing style).
Do It for Free does, however, get off on the wrong foot to a rather weak start. The opening two tracks—“Black Cat” and “Afterparty”—are alternately slinky and rambunctious, but are a bit too streamlined and radio-friendly for their own good. For a band that seemingly has its ambitions in sharing the wealth, so to speak, they start out their record by having their most obvert money-grabbing chances at radio play, which just makes them rather ordinary and like any band out there trying to make it big. But then you get to “Right Where I Belong”, and the album miraculously begins to right itself. “Right Where I Belong”, with its sweet Rhodes piano, is the kind of jazzy light rock fusion that Steely Dan did so well some 35 years ago. From there, the album swings from strength to strength. “All My Great Escapes” has a very mid-‘70s rock sound to it, and sounds as though it could have been written by a one-hit wonder soul rock band such as Ace. “Back in ATL” is a jazzy, vibrant number that will get hips sashaying, while “Let It Go” is a sultry, soulful stab at fuzzy Southern rock. “The Ol’ Speak Easy” features a vocal style that is eerily reminiscent of the likes of a throaty Tom Waits.
Where Do It for Free falters, aside from its opening shots, is in the record’s back half where there are some rather languid ballads. “Side by Side” is a cloying, sappy piano slow jam that is another attempt for the band to reach the brass ring by reaching out to the lowest common denominator. “Hallelujah”, which closes the album and, no, is not the 1,894,683rd cover version of the Leonard Cohen song, is a bit of a buzz kill considering that it directly follows the minor-key keyboard vamp “Let’s Get Paid”, which feels like the album’s true final highlight. Still, Do It for Free is enjoyable and there’s a whack of fairly strong material and some fleeting moments of real heart, such as “Do It for Free”, where Jones sings of loving his art so much that he would entertain people for nothing, if given the choice. While that might be highly doubtful, as everyone’s got to eat regardless of how they vote, it marks one of the few moments where the band gets remotely political. Which is odd, considering the cover art and the public and fairly high profile political activities of some of the band’s members. Do It for Free, therefore, is just a rather light and fluffy album—nothing wrong with that—that is more interested in moving one’s pelvis than the head on top of one’s shoulders. This might be generally admirable in and of itself, but there are hints and glimmers that Do It for Free could be and wants to be something a bit more. That’s probably the album’s biggest disappointment: for all of the leftie posturing of its lead singer and his presence in a very public protest movement, Do It for Free is rather quiet when it comes to its politics. In other words, the image on the cover of Benjamin Franklin has the blindfold in the wrong spot: it should have likely been placed over his mouth as a gag instead.