A bit more than a month ago, a group called the New Republicans shot off an e-mail asking Irregular Times to give their new 3-CD-Set of songs about the Bush presidency, "Terrorist," a listen and a review. Serendipitous music is, by definition, an unexpected joy, and I've always enjoyed political music, so I'm happy to write this review. Song samples linked to in this review are from Tower Records, which is currently offering the CD set for sale.
The songwriter and lead vocalist on all these songs, George Thatcher, seems comfortable changing his identity and his degree of sincerity from song to song. On "America," Thatcher channels John Cougar Mellencamp, mixed with an occasional snarl that veers from New Country to Seattle Grunge. With the lyrics of his chorus and the acccompaniment of a soprano saxophone, he evokes imagery of a 50-foot-tall flag flapping in the breeze over a Kansas cornfield. Although the verses are a bit didactic -- trying to sneak in a history lesson about everything from Native Americans to slavery to World War II -- this song could manage to slip on its own into the subconscious of the self-styled patriotic American" as Thatcher seems to mean it to do. The same could be said for "Taliban," which is sung with intentionally homespun style, and written with gritty, almost salty authenticity -- "yeah yeah yeah, I say Goddamn the Taliban."
For the more starched side of the "American Heartland" audience, we have a gospel number named "One God," with an earnest choir so enthusiastically backing Thatcher that I wonder whether the production is a parody. Thatcher sings:
His love is pure
The word of God
can never justify revenge...
We must all cease our Jihad
Embrace our enemies as friends...
There is one God
Watching over Islam
The same God and son
Is watching every Christian
One God for Israel
and every child of Abraham
One God the same for all men
Putting aside for the moment the pesky fact that not all religions are Abrahamic and that a substantial proportion of Americans live without a belief in any god, how do we reconcile this Let's-embrace-our-Enemies, United-Under-God lyric approach with the other songs on the CD? These songs employ phrases like "the blood-sucking conglomerates that rule your pathetic world" ("Arctic Miss"), "the arms of the Devil shall embrace us in our stand" ("The Sins of the Father"), "Justice is crying to be served by oppositional armies quoting holy words...The desperate actions of religiously insane" ("Collateral Damage"), "We have seen it a thousand times before, disguised as Patriotism, disguised as righteousness, dressed up like virtue" ("Shout"), "God bless our mighty armies, God bless our mighty guns" ("Aftermath"), and the following verbal riff from "Jihad":
Oh my God, it's Jihad
Allah's whipping out his rod
We with class take no sass
Gonna kick Mohammed's ass
Gonna bomb each salaam
who packs a weapon for Islam
Every damn Islamic man
had better watch their fucking can
From the womb to the tomb
We'll put those sand niggers there soon...
Every chance we'll advance
and smash the little shits like ants
Yes, I understand that some of these words are meant to be laden with irony and sarcasm, and that others are an attempt at criticism of corporatism and religious fundamentalism. It's clear that neither Thatcher nor his "New Republicans" really thinks of Arabs as "sand niggers." The problem is that the bitter sarcastic approach that displays deep skepticism about authorities -- be they authoritative concepts (such as patriotism), authoritative religious doctrines, or authoritarian government leaders -- is fundamentally incompatible with wide-eyed faith: either in God as a redeeming supernatural force or in the uplifting soprano sax-touched virtue of a homeland. If you're listening to this CD from one of the two points of view, half of the songs will be alienating. And that both skepticism of faith-based politics and celebration of faith-based politics are included in the CD leads me to suspect that Thatcher is adopting a pose in his adoption of one of the two. None of us like listening to a pose.
To avoid this problem, you'll need to do some mixing of your own. For the straight-forward music-goer, songs like "America," "Taliban," "Shout" and "Loving You On My Own" will provide a strong axis of attraction. For the terminally ironic and cynical, program your CD player to work with "Jihad," "Before God's Eyes," "Arctic Miss" and "Now I am the President."
For me, the redeeming feature of "Terrorist" is the handful of songs that avoid both the trap of posing piety and the trap of entirely too serious social criticism (if we want to consider the ramifications of energy development for fragile ecosystems, we'll read a position paper), and instead have a load of jolly fun skewering a subject. We can't just keep crying through November, after all. "Florida" is a giddy joy, not only because its lyrics are teasingly absurd ("I say Jeb, Jeb, What's it that you said, You keepin' pretty damn quiet down in your Gubernatorial shed"), but because those absurd lyrics are tied to the lightest of Devo-ish New Wave music. You know this is a comic song not to be taken over-seriously but rather a delightful vicarious tease, and damned if it isn't catchy -- I've found myself singing the chorus in the shower more than a handful of times over the past month. Janet Reno would dance to this tune if she were running for governor again.
"Billy's Willy," framed in a similarly lighthearted fashion as a mock-out of country conventions, is surprisingly touching in its implicit contrast between Clinton's marital lapse and the much more consequential lapses of the Bush presidency. And "Jihad" is so snarky, so aggressively minimalist in the way it builds up to understated, sneering outrage, that I didn't know whether to frown or laugh. I found its laid-back black humor much more insidious and penetrating in its message than so many of the other more straight-up, strident tracks.
These songs have been enjoyable enough for me to be happy that the 3-CD set came my way. For those of you interested in checking out "Terrorist," I suggest giving it a listen, identifying which of the 32 total tracks you find most compelling, and burning those new tracks to your own new CD mix. That way, you'll be able to enjoy the best songs, avoid the uneven or didactic tracks, and shape the coherent listening experience that Thatcher and his New Republicans were either unable or unwlling to summon the discipline to pull together.
George Thatcher and the New Republicans' new 3-CD set, "Terrorist," is available now through Tower Records.
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