Written by: Pat King, Special to CC2K
As of this writing the Occupy Wall Street protest is still going on and similar occupations are starting or being planned in cities all over the country. Because of this, I thought it might be a good time to review a political album.
Released about a month ago, Tom Morello’s Worldwide Rebel Songs is a competent collection of protest songs. Which is to say that, for an album composed entirely of political material, it’s actually pretty introspective and somehow not as preachy as it might have been.
There’s a couple straight rock songs. “It Begins Tonight” opens with a riff that could have been taken out of the Rage Against the Machine songbook, recalling Morello’s previous life as lead guitar player of that group. In fact, “It Begins Tonight” is kind of like Rage without all the rage. Which is nice. We’ve all gotten a little older, a little more mellow and are now a little more interested in the psychology of suffering. We’re not so angry anymore.
Most of the songs on the album, though, could be pretty comfortably classified as folk music. There’s a variety of styles, from Dylan to gospel to stuff on the more experimental side. It’s a storytelling album. The narratives take you around the world, from Mexico to the United States to Iraq. These songs are meant to stoke our empathy. Morello tells stories that often end in the oppressed overthrowing their oppressors. There’s certainly anger in these stories, but it’s more of a spiritual, existential anger. Which can get quite, err, creepy, at times.
For example, the song “Save the Hammer for the Man” features a church organ, a gospel choir and Ben Harper singing as if he was a Baptist preacher. But dig the chorus: “It’s the calling of the wretched / it’s the rising of the damned / Save the hammer for the man.” OK. So you’ve got the sacred and I guess the very profane too. I don’t know, I mean, I know words are just symbols and not the things they represent, but this violence and religion stuff is all over the album. Maybe not as overt sometimes as this song, but the idea of combining religion (or maybe just “spirituality”) and violent revolution reminds me of a few fellas who had the same ideas about ten years ago. But that’s a bit unfair. Really, anarchist or socialist revolution replaces religion in these songs, something beautiful and spiritual in itself. Still, maybe just a little creepy, eh?
“The Dogs of Tijuana,” is my favorite song on the album. It begins with a Spanish guitar riff, just Morello playing his acoustic guitar and singing. Slowly, other instruments are added and it builds to a climax and then it’s just Morello and his guitar again. The song is pure image play. You picture the poor Mexican workers, hardly better off than slaves, living in “cardboard slums” and singing revolutionary songs. When Morello sings “We are the dogs of Tijuana / Filled with garbage and stones” or “The wrath of the lion / is the wisdom of God / And every dog has its day,” you can’t help but be moved, unless you’re a bit dead inside.
The title track is a weird sing-along. Maybe a mix of School House Rocks and Phil Ochs’ more ironic tunes (except without the irony). It’s a simple kind of anthem, something easy to remember. Like those old union songs written by workers, for workers, the song sounds like something that wants to be passed around. Nice touch. Have a little fun with the revolution, you know?
Are you a Republican? A moderate Democrat or something? Unless you’re already some sort of leftist radical, you might not get into these songs. Which is usually the case with these sorts of things. This stuff’s not going to change anyone’s mind about anything. But if you’re already some sort of commie, you’ll probably dig this enough. It won’t exactly work as the soundtrack for your riot. But it might provide nice background music for your next organic farm collective meeting.