Tom Morello and emcee Boots Riley team up for some rather forgettable music.
Blending rap and rock successfully is not an easy task. For every Rage Against the Machine and "Bring the Noise", which was the pairing of Public Enemy and Anthrax, there is Limp Bizkit and, well, the entire nu-metal movement. There is a fine line between genius and corniness when guitars are mixed with boom-bap. Rage found the balance by incorporating experimental guitar sounds, thanks to virtuoso Tom Morello, with a rhythm section very much akin to what you would hear on a hip-hop track; i.e. simplistic bass and drums. Even though their template worked, there was a lingering feeling that the music could get really boring, really fast. And, unfortunately, that's exactly what happened when Morello and emcee Boots Riley teamed up to become Street Sweeper Social Club (SSSC).
On their own, both of these guys are clearly talented. Boots has been killing it -- well, if you're a fan of his political Oakland-drawl -- since 1992 as part of the Coup with DJ Pam the Funkstress. They have dropped five records together that more or less go overlooked by the mainstream but make a strong impact on the underground. In particular, the political heads eat up the Coup's blend of angst, storytelling, and truth-spitting. So it would only make sense for Boots to team up with an equally pissed and shine-a-light-on-the-bullshit artist like Morello. Aside from his previous hard-rock group Lock Up, the guitarist who makes his instrument sound like anything like a guitar is best known as the man who made Rage Against the Machine so brutal. Sure, frontman Zach De La Rocha's powerful voice and lyrics were a force to be reckoned with, but when you take away his growl and anarchy, you're left with Morello's screeching, squealing, face-melting, record-scratching- and harmonica-imitating riffs and solos.
Sometime after Rage broke up, though, Morello and his rhythm section -- drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford -- linked up with former Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell for what equated to the biggest cock-tease ever. Their first solid album aside, every song sounded exactly the same and couldn't amount to more than messy, recycled riffs and Cornell's eager but lacking singing. (Writer's note: I write all of this as a fan of Soundgarden and an even bigger and intense Rage fan. I saw them at Rock the Bells in 2007 and nearly exploded.) Also, Morello dropped two unremarkable acoustic protest records under the alias the Nightwatchman. They weren't total losses and some of his lyrics were poignant, but it the albums were still lacking.
During his years as the Nightwatchman, Morello began linking up with Boots Riley. Those meetings then eventually led to their collaboration as Street Sweeper Social Club. Now, several years later, the duo has finished up their self-titled record and joined Nine Inch Nails and Jane's Addiction on tour. And, from random YouTube footage is available, it's apparent that the saving grace of this album is its interpretation in a live setting. And even without those videos, it's not hard to imagine getting pumped by Morello's heavy, though now repetitive, riffs and Boots' "fight the power" lyrics.
But a good live show means little to nothing if the music doesn't translate to the recording studio. There are some exceptions, such as jam bands that rarely sound interesting when condensed, but SSSC is hardly a jam band. And several spins of Street Sweeper Social Club reveals the weaknesses inherit in this duo's style. While Boots is mostly on point with his critical lyricism, he lacks a punchy energy that is required to match Morello's heavier riffs. As part of the Coup, the emcee rhymes over funky boom-bap that complements his laidback style. But with Morello by his side, Boots' flow comes across as uninspired and flat. There are also times when their respective instruments just do not sync up, such as the awkward "100 Little Curses". Other tracks like album-opener "Fight! Smash! Win!" might feature some dope linguistic acrobatics, but in that song's case, the chorus hardly features the exclamation points shown in its title. "Fight! Smash! Win!" sounds recycled, generic, and hardly worthy of inspiring anyone to fight or smash anything other than this CD.
This album's only redeeming qualities come through in tracks "Good Morning Mrs. Smith", a complete Rage rip-off that finally works, and "Megablast", mostly due to Boots' double-time flow. Yes, both tracks are essentially more of the same, but they at least offer something either done well ("Good Morning Mrs. Smith") or done slightly differently ("Megablast"). "Somewhere in the World It's Midnight" comes close, but the clunky bridge and hook drag it down. Similarly, "The Squeeze" starts off promising with Boots spitting stream-of-consciousness for the first 10 or so seconds. But then Morello's been there, done that guitar comes in, Boots switches his cadence, and everything, again, becomes generic.
Once Street Sweeper Social Club's 39 minutes are up, it's not a stretch to say you won't return or even remember what just blared from your speakers. As a fan of both Morello and Boots, this is more than a disappointment. But, perhaps, there is something settling in knowing that Morello particularly seems to be running out of ideas. You can only play the same riffs over and over before people start thinking and exclaiming, "Wait, didn't I hear this before?" At least Boots shows some dexterity on here, even if it's clear he is better off remaining with DJ Pam the Funktress, his cohort in The Coup.