PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

Levellers: Greatest Hits

Behold, the largest compilation of music by UK heavyweights the Levellers or, Just Let the Band Do the Singing.


Levellers

Greatest Hits

Label: On the Fiddle
US Release Date: 2014-12-02
UK Release Date: 2014-09-29
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

I just happened to catch the Levellers by luck in the summer of 1994. Peter Gabriel's WOMAD (World of Music Art and Dance) festival was on its second tour of states and us Americans were lured in by acts we were already familiar with like Live, Arrested Development, Midnight Oil and Gabriel himself. We ended up being treated to a host of acts totally new to us like the Levellers. To us, they were five guys in a pretty good band. Back in their homeland of England, they were close to selling out entire stadiums. My brother spent one academic year abroad in Wales and came home with a copy of the "Belaruse" single for me and Back to Nature for himself. This was before file sharing and if you wanted a high quality bootleg, you had to pay for it.

Alas, their sound was just a little too "English" to really catch on in the states. It's of course, not their fault. They had, and continue to have, so many things going for them. Mark Chadwick's easy-to-take impersonation of John Lennon suits the music well (just listen to "Happy Birthday Revolution"). Charlie Heather was as good a drummer as any Celtic-driven rock act could hope for. Bassist Jeremy Cunningham's stage presense was charismatic to say the least. Jonathan Sevink's use of the violin helped set the Levellers apart from many a band at the time seeing as how he somtimes almost approached his job as a keyboardist. But when Sevink wasn't taking the textural route, he was guiding the Celtic influence through their sound, elevating them above just being an updated Dexy's Midnight Runners. Toss in underrated guitarist Simon Friend and some very sticky tunes and you've got yourself a great band. I bought a copy of their debut album A Weapon Called the Word from a shop owned by a local journalist, and he told me how baffled he was that the Levellers never caught on in America (he was at the same WOMAD show). I greed, of course. Every song on their second album Levelling the Land was a hit waiting to happen. Anyone could like this stuff, you didn't have to aspire to be a boatman.

Greatest Hits is not the Levellers' first compilation but it appears to be the longest, stretching over three discs. For this article I was given the 39-track edition lasting over two hours. Since 1998's One Way of Life was released on China Records, the band has gone on to release five more studio albums. It has been 24 years since their first album and the well is deeper, to the point where fans can have serious debates about what great songs didn't make it to a two-CD set. I'm not going to get into any should have/could have particulars, but I will just say one thing about what I find to be an odd choice: the original recording of the hit song and fan favorite "One Way" is a bonus track.

This doesn't go in chronological order. This sticks in the craw of many musical sticklers, but the leity seems to prefer shuffle anyhow. Greatest Hits does the shuffling for you, and it paints a flattering picture of the band's skills. They never truly suffered from a "slump". There was a time when their popularity was at its peak when Zeitgeist managed to become the number one selling album in the UK. And since all that must goes up must come down, their popularity tapered off and their fanbase was whittled down to the faithful (they didn't even bother selling Mouth to Mouth through an American distributor). But Levellers fans and serious fans of music in general know that you can't mistaken events like these for a band nodding off artistically. While under the radar, they release Hello Pig, Green Blad Rising, Thruth and Lies,Letters from the Underground and Static on the Airwaves. Greatest Hits gives you just a taste of each, taking larger percentages from earlier releases such as A Weapon Called the Word and Levelling the Land (four songs from each).

Nearly all of it is a treat. "The Cholera Well", "Last Man Alive", "Make You Happy", "Before the End" and too many other tracks to name have snuck by me in the past. Thanks to Greatest Hits, I am reacquainted with them. The compilers wisely included many non-album moments like the single "Bozos", the 1998 rerecording of "One Way", a cover of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" and the single versions of "Julie" and "Just the One" (the former is missing the sampled jam at the end and the latter is has more verses to it). The Steve Osborne mix of "Too Real" doesn't mask the single's intensity, which is good news for everyone. Bonus tracks include "A Life Less Ordinary", "We Are All Gunmen" (which I really dig), "After the Hurricane" and the 1991 recording of "One Way" that I mentioned earlier. There is a live recording of "Exodus" which, as best as I can tell, is not the same one that's on the 1996 live album Headlights, White Lines, Black Tar Rivers. Inifial pressings of Levelling the Land didn't include the sing "Fifteen Years". After the single did so well on the charts, it was included on subsequent pressings. "Fifteen Years" now kicks off Greatest Hits.

But I have to question why a band as strong as the Levellers chose to celebrate their 25 years together by inviting other guest artists to come into the studio and help record inferior versions of some of their songs. When I hear Imelda May sing "What a Beautiful Day", I find myself parroting the chorus from the previous track -- "the way things were is the way I want to be" indeed. Frank Turner's take on "Julie" isn't as terrible, but he did drain "Julie" of her all her mystery. Who was Julie? Why was she so sad all of the time? Why didn't she make more of an effort to be happy? And why should you care with such pedestrian music? Bellowhead adds nothing to "Just the One" that the Levellers circa 1995 didn't do better already. Billy Bragg sounds good on "Hope Street" but the band transposed the tune to a new key for him. It's the most palatable of the four revisits, though it is missing a noticeable amount of vinegar.

Hey, that's what a skip button is for. And all of the shuffling and skipping in the world can't diminish the fact that the Levellers were and still are a damn fine band. They were a socially conscious band that realized the dangers and/or futilities of preaching ("All the problems in the world / Won't be solved by this guitar"). They wrote relentlessly catchy songs and played their ass off onstage. They also never released a dog album. They have stayed true to their vision of blending British folk, Celtic and Britpop to make exciting music for the masses. If only the masses were able to tune in. Wait, can't a greatest hits package help with that? Sure it can, you just need no filler. Maybe next time.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.