Under Review: Chumbawamba – ABCDEFG

First of all: yes, Virginia, that Chumabwamba.  You might know them simply as the band that did “Tubthumping,” but in the years since, they’ve abandoned the big rock style in favor of a more refined (but no less sharply political) folk presentation.  Think of them as a more smartass Belle & Sebastian or better yet, as an even more cynical version of The Pogues.  In 2005, the group released A Singsong And A Scrap, a collection of mostly original folk ballads (which also included an a cappella cover of The Clash’s “Bankrobber”).  Three years later, they put out an album that officially bears the longest title of any record in history.  Usually truncated to The Boy Bands Have Won, the album took on several more modern issues; most notably the popularity of social networking sites in the stellar “Add Me.”  Chumbawamba’s albums have always tackled some big topics, but ABCDEFG, the band’s latest, is devoted to the one thing that ties together the group’s almost 30-year history: music.  ABCDEFG covers a wide range of topics relating to music, starting off with a short introduction based on a Bertolt Brecht poem.  The message of the album is summed up in the introduction’s opening line: “In the dark times, will we be singing? Yes.  We’ll be singing of the dark times.”  ABCDEFG is not a dark album on the surface, but the songs weave through both dramatic self-examination and festive jubilee seamlessly.  Many of the songs wax nostalgic about the days of yore when all you needed to have a good time were “Voices, That’s All.”  Later in the album, “Missed” paints a portrait of modern music culture, in which even the most sincere music lover traps themselves within the personal cage of their headphones.  As the band has explained, they’re not against this method of music consumption; they’re just noting the phenomenon.

If ABCDEFG has a central message, it’s that music is for sharing.  In the delightful “Pickle,” those who wish to preserve folk music are encouraged to let their beloved genre evolve and adapt.  “Ratatatay” details the true story of late musician/critic George Melly’s recitation of Kurt Schwitters’ tone poem to fend off muggers.  The power of music as a defensive tool (and even as a weapon) is further explored in “Torturing James Hetfield,” in which the Metallica frontman is tied down and forced to listen to Chumbawamba’s music.  This song was written in response to Hetfield’s approval of the use of his band’s music to torture Guantanamo Bay prisoners.  Despite some heavy song inspirations, Chumbawamba’s politics and historical lessons never get in the way of a great tune.  “Puccini Said” tells the tale of Alzheimer’s-stricken Maria Tobyn, an opera singer best known for her role in “Madame Butterfly.”  The song is a lilting and delicate piece that features samples of Tobyn herself.  Another fascinating story comes up in “Wagner At The Opera,” where a Holocaust survivor spins a noisemaker during an Israeli orchestra’s performance of Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll.”  The piece is intricately arranged, with unaccompanied vocals being backed by slowly building percussion.  War-inspired songs like “Singing Out The Days” evoke trench harmonizers while “The Devil’s Interval” conjures a slightly medieval atmosphere.  The music on ABCDEFG is playful, satirical and, despite its British references, universal.  These are the kinds of songs that every modern folk musician tries to write: songs that effortlessly blend art and ideology.


~ by E. on March 5, 2010.

3 Responses to “Under Review: Chumbawamba – ABCDEFG”

  1. Talk about double-edged success. As I remember it, “Tubthumping” came across like a sillly party song, and its ubiquity laid a bunch of the wrong connotations on these guys. Glad to see they’re still putting out topical, passionate stuff that has a sense of humor. Nice review; I’ll go check this out.

  2. I enjoyed this album very much. So much so, that I plan to give it a second listen. A rarity for me. I’ll be singing when I’m swinging.

    Another astute review!

  3. A fantastic album, I’ve listened to it literally dozens of times since picking it up. Excellent review!

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