A Decent Party
With a combined four decades in the biz and a prolific output on both ends, Tom Morello and Boots Riley must be two of the most seasoned revolutionaries in music today. So it speaks volumes that while their second release as Street Sweeper Social Club isn't their best (as a group or individuals) it's still an engaging piece of work.
None of the songs on The Ghetto Blaster EP quite reach the anthemic heights of their self-titled debut. In fact, only three of the seven tracks are true-blue, never-before-heard originals, and even for an EP it frequently feels patchwork and phoned-in. That being said, there are enough solid moments delivered here to confirm the semi-supergroup's ability with "revolutionary party jams."
From the get-go, it’s clear that Morello is relying a bit more on his guitar’s fundamentals than the mind-bending versatility we’ve heard with Rage or Audioslave. This isn’t unwelcome, and in fact turns out being a perfect compliment to Riley’s emceeing. For his part, Boots’ rhymes seem in fine form. In his work with the Coup, Pam the Funkstress’ disjointed, buzzing beats highlight Riley’s humor and storytelling more than anything. But on the opening track “Ghetto Blaster,” Boots seems to have hit a stride in his collab with Morello; his rhymes have taken a more fluid form to compliment the guitarist’s wrecking-ball punk-funk.
The potency of this mix is only confirmed on the second track: a version of the Coup’s “Everythang.” As in the original, Boots relates his laundry-list of ghetto reality as crimes against humanity (“Every roach is a resident / Every truth ain’t evident / Every slave story present tense / Every uprise a consequence”). What differs in his lyrics this time, however, is how much more vitriol drips from them, especially on the deftly highlighted “Every banker is a fuckin’ thief.”
That same listening experience isn’t to be found on the group’s redo of “Promenade.” Originally from their 2009 full-length debut, nothing is really added here, and certainly not enough to merit the label of “Guitar Fury Remix.” Ultimately, the track comes across as unnecessary filler, more worthy of hidden track material than a send-off.
Yet another curious layer is heard when the EP tackles its two covers. Their version of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” found its origin on SSSC’s stint opening for Nine Inch Nails, where it was apparently a big hit. Whether it had a bit more vim and vigor live isn’t exactly clear; here it sounds like another also-ran. Though Boots is clever enough with his tweaks on Maya’s lyrics, Morello’s attempts at refashioning the signature gunshot-and-cash-register chorus fall well short. Though the song is certainly fun, they seem to have lost sight of the fact that a song like this takes not just fun but at least a bit of gravitas to pull it off.
In essence, that’s the album’s biggest flaw. When they play fun for fun’s sake--as they do on their muscular version of LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out”--they nail it. When they manage to strike the balance between weightiness and whimsy--like on “Everythang,” “Ghetto Blaster” or the highlight track “The New Fuck You”--it’s a rewarding experience. The problem is that those moments are too few and fleeting and the EP too short.
Today’s times--swiftly changing as they are--definitely call for a group like Street Sweeper Social Club. A group that understands class struggle not as the dusty wheelhouse of grizzled left academics, but as a living breathing part of everyday life, full of heartache, anger, and yes, fun. It’s the kind of mix that makes for not just memorable music, but vibrant and brilliant moments in bottom-up history. Boots and Morello are well aware of this, and also well aware that those kinds of moments may be just around the corner--all the more reason to breathe some life into them. Maybe the future will prove The Ghetto Blaster EP as a transition for SSSC, a time when their creativity and relevance was only starting to take root. In the meantime--like so much else in working people’s lives--we’re left wanting.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com) and writes the column of the same name for the Society of Cinema and Arts. His articles have also appeared in Z Magazine, SocialistWorker.org, CounterPunch, New Politics and the International Socialist Review.
He can be reached at email@example.com.