Living With War
Two old folkies and two young rabble-rousers: the summer's best political records.
Written and recorded in two weeks, Living With War is unapologetic Bush-bashing that not only feels a little bit behind the curve politically but also has lyrics that flirt with being out and out silly. Saturday Night Live has already rushed in to poke fun at Neil Young's diatribe, with the subtle-as-Tom DeLay "Let's Impeach the President" as one of its highlights.
But the irascible ex-hippie who maintains his Canadian citizenship -- and who is on record with his admiration for Ronald Reagan -- saves himself from embarrassment by making a genuinely good and surprising Neil Young record. This isn't Freedom, Rust Never Sleeps, or Comes a Time, but it's better than a lot of his late-'90s work and comes to life in a way that Prairie Wind -- which wasn't a weak record -- never did.
One great example is the searing "The Restless Consumer," driven by grunge-era fuzz guitar and a fascinating push and pull between the title character with an endless appetite for oil and Young's barking about "Don't need no ad machine/Telling me what I need" and "Don't need no more boxes I can't see/Covered in flags but I can't see them on TV" -- then bluntly, "Don't need no more lies."
"Shock and Awe," which tosses in trumpets, of all things, on top of the guitar, is Young's best argument against Bush. "We had a chance to change our mind/But somehow wisdom was hard to find." "Looking for Leader," which
namechecks Barack Obama and Colin Powell, reaches too far and feels too much like Young throwing in his two cents on Bill O'Reilly's "No Spin Zone."
Ending the album with Young's arrangement of "America the Beautiful," sung by 100 voices (all credited on the CD), is corny, sure, but it's uplifting in a satisfying way. Really, the whole album is like that. The moments where Young confounds expectations trump the moments that induce cringes. And Saturday Night Live has sucked this year anyway. -- Werner Trieschmann
We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Wow, didn't see this coming. But then that's what great art does. It creeps up on you like this knockout album, where Bruce Springsteen -- who, despite being an aging icon, hasn't made many memorable records of late -- hijacks the Pete Seeger songbook for music that is the polar opposite of what you might expect. This isn't musty, earnest folk musicology ready to be shipped to the Smithsonian but vital, exuberant, woolly, and wild sing-alongs. Seeger didn't write these songs. He dug them out of America's closet. Springsteen, backed by an army of musicians (13 total) and with a growl that's lifted from Tom Waits, makes a case for each and every one. ("Erie Canal," "O Mary Don't You Weep," "Shenandoah") -- WT
Pick a Bigger Weapon
My favorite record of a so-far weak year underwhelmed at first because it contains no individual songs I love as much as the Coup's earlier "Wear Clean Draws" or "Ghetto Manifesto." It's bloomed with each subsequent listen because this time the endless, elastic groove matches the funny, fearless worldview -- West Coast Marxist hip-hop duo Boots Riley and Pam the Funkstress leaning hard on the (early-'80s) funk. This isn't just the best Public Enemy record since 1990. It's also the best Prince record since 1987, with direct or near-direct and well-earned references to Controversy and 1999. The Coup don't just want to end the war and close the income gap. They want a revolution you can laugh, love, and fuck to. And for 65 minutes, anyway, they get it. ("Laugh/Love/Fuck," "ShoYoAss," "I Love Boosters!," "Baby Let's Have a Baby Before Bush Do Something Crazy") -- Chris Herrington