Black 47: Iraq

[17 March 2008]

By James Greene, Jr.

I hate to bring down all the rabid Edwin Starr fans out there, but Agent Double-O-Soul was completely and utterly wrong when he famously sang that war was good for “ahap-so-lutely nuthin’”.  There is at least one semi-positive by-product of dreadful, soul-destroying episodes such as World War I and Vietnam.  I speak, of course, of the protest song.  The irony is bitterly delicious; take away the latter hapless, hopeless decade-spanning jungle conflict, and our buddy Edwin would have had to build a career upon fare far less powerful than his enduring 1970 hit.  I can’t imagine “Grits Ain’t Grocery” ever becoming any kind of socio-political anthem.  Then again, I’ve never really had grits, nor have I ever been in any kind of position where the mealy foodstuffs were forced upon me by a higher echelon as grocery.

But I digress.  The current Iraq War, a skirmish I like to refer to as Desert Storm 2: Desert Stormier, has itself produced a litany of emotionally-charged musical reactions, enough to fill a healthy four or five disc box set with gatefold packaging, a collector’s pin, and liner notes by Greil Marcus.  Despite the vast array of angry rebukes from artists like Pearl Jam, Neil Young, and other white liberal millionaires, one musical voice has remained noticeably silent.  Thus, humanity has been forced to wonder aloud: what would G.E. Smith’s Iraq War concept album sound like?  Would the guitar solos be unabashedly melancholy or cautiously optimistic?  Would there be way too much saxophone on every track, or not nearly enough?  Would G.E. appear on the cover, or allow a mournful-looking bald eagle to take his place? 

Ostensibly too busy maintaining that awesome ponytail and sexy smirk of his, Smith has been unable thus far to get his skinny, wrinkled keister in the studio to answer any of these burning questions.  Thankfully, Bronx-based Celtic rockers Black 47 have stepped up to fill the void, turning in Iraq, the album of weak blues runs, mild horns, and helicopter noises G.E. would probably craft if someone put a gun to his head tomorrow and demanded a dozen songs revolving around George Bush’s unending quest for oil, power, blood, death, and photo opportunities.

The thirteenth release from this nearly twenty-year-old Irish punk act, Iraq finds Black 47 painting a bland musical pub rock pastiche over which singer Larry Kirwin hiccups sad tales about young soldiers and their experiences overseas.  All twelve songs seem to feature the same four chords going at the exact same speed and approximating the same boring melody over and over again.  This repetition, unintentional or not, renders the entire affair tepid and ineffectual.  If good protest music always comes out and grabs you in some way, shaking you up out of your routine, workaday, One Tree Hill world, slapping you across the face like a scorned lover from years past, then Black 47’s music just kind of glares at you from across the room, shuffling its feet and hoping you’ll pick up on the discontent bubbling underneath the generally blank, unremarkable surface.

The only song that stands out on Iraq is “Stars and Stripes”, but that’s only because it’s a shockingly lazy rewrite of “Sloop John B”.  Assuming they’re dead, the unknown West Indian folk musicians who originally penned that classic must be rolling over in their graves.  As it is, Brian Wilson must be rolling over in his sandbox (to be fair, though, that probably has nothing to do with Black 47 and their lackadaisical songwriting; Brian probably just likes to let the sand tickle his clammy, saggy flesh). 

While Black 47’s anti-war sentiments are nice and a handful of their lyrics are genuinely touching, as a whole Iraq falls flat.  Aside from the lackluster arrangements, the album seems to be missing a specific quirk, a subversive dash or subterfuge, that might put it in the same company as a Creedence Clearwater, a Phil Ochs, or even a Rage Against the Machine.  As it stands, the record sounds like a third rate Clash rip-off trying to convince a handful of barflies that war sucks, something everyone in this imaginary unnamed establishment knows anyway, so they just stare down into their warm, half-empty beers and hope the depressing collection of blokes onstage eventually plays “Safe European Home” or at least “Garageland”.  Then, maybe on the cab ride home, they’ll hear that awesome song about war from Rush Hour 2 (you know, the one they used in the trailer when Jackie Chan was doing all that kick-ass karate stuff).

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/black-47-iraq/