Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweethearts

Another goofy meme that I’ve spent way too much time on during breaks from paying work. (Found thirdhand via Joe, curse him: Mike did a really good one, too.)

Here’s how it works...

  1. Go to Wikipedia and click “random article.” That is your band’s name.

  2. Click “random article” again; that is your album name.

  3. Click “random article” 15 more times (or however many times seems appropriate for your band); those are the tracks on your album.

Revolutionary Vanguard, as their name implies, play politically-minded indie-rock. Obvious touchstones include Crass, Stiff Little Fingers, Manic Street Preachers, and Gang Of Four—but more than anything, their omnivorous musical approach recalls the spirit, if not the sound, of the Clash. The foursome, whose members came from around the UK before meeting at university, play driving, melodic guitar rock with moments of almost shocking prettiness. The lyrics are smart, compassionate, earnest, but shot through with whimsy and a winning self-deprecation that never tips over into the outright buffoonery of, say, Chumbawamba.

The group’s name is tongue-in-cheek: they eschew the austere urban-guerilla stance of their forbearers in favor of a sort of agrarian anarcho-syndicalism. This attitude is reflected in their look: with their mop-tops. spectacles, and chunky sweaters, they look like they’ve just come from a University Socialist Students meeting.

The sleeve to Revolutionary Vanguard’s second album, Ace High, shows a cozy domestic scene of four elderly women sitting around a kitchen table, playing bridge. The setting is warm and comfortable, with tea and cakes in evidence and everybody smiling and laughing; but closer inspection shows that they’re using a deck of tattered Special Forces regimental cards, their backs emblazoned with a grinning, beret-topped skull and the slogan PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION.

The album opens with “1819 in Australia,” a blistering attack on the colonialist project, with lyrics based on contemporary arguments about the merits of local sovereignty vs. direct control from the home country, playing out against a background of sampled aboriginal chants—suggesting that, no matter the resolution of debate over rule of the whites, the indigenous people will suffer. Sample lyric: “A race of convicts / Your convictions are erased.” Ends in a thunderous percussion rave-up.

“Bala Ffestiniog Line” is a fantasia on the last hours of Richey James Edwards, here imagined as riding the titular train through the Welsh countryside, watching the landscape go by and pondering suicide. Simmering mid-tempo with angular guitar lines, bursting out into a Holy Bible-style chorus: “Is it too late to start over? / Would it be too late to jump? / Will I ever sleep again above the ground?” Ends ambivalently, literally on an unresolved note.

Then it’s into the uptempo “Pupil,” an evocation of school days—the drudgery and misery, but also the rush of learning, the feeling of openness to a world of new ideas—wrapped around a power-pop chorus: “No I, no I in beauty / but beauty comes in at the eye / Dilate, dilate the pupil / Let it in, let it in at the I / cos soon or late, we’ve all got to die.”

“Wallingford Railway Station” is an affectionate look at small-town English life and musical dreams, applying the tropes of the rock-and-roll anthem (e.g., Foreigner’s “Jukebox Hero”) to the story of a young boy waiting at the station for the arrival of folk musicians for the Wallingford’s annual BunkFest: “From the café at Wallingford Station / He heard the sound of a mandolin / And the sound of the string’s vibration / Stood the hairs up on his skin / He said, Someday it’s gonna be me up there / Wi’ my fiddle under my chin!” The backing track sounds like a country stringband playing AC/DC.

The sunny “Chalcedony” is a sweet-and-sour relationship song; over a Byrds-like 12-string, the singer chides himself for undervaluing a one-time girlfriend, with a sing-along chorus: “She was only semi-precious to me / Chalcedony, Chalcedony.”

The record takes another serious turn with “GP Miguel Indurain,” which uses the long-distance cycling race as a metaphor for the dragged-out brutality of the Spanish Civil War, with Spain herself as the grand prix to be won. “Castanet click of the bicycle chain / Stamped into my brain / Fascist macadam under my wheels / And the mob at my heels / Ride, ride for your life.” Acoustic guitars and upright bass, with intriguing scrapyard percussion that suggests both the rhythms of Spanish dance and the mechanisms of a bike, without overtly aping either.

The rough-and-tumble guitar rock of “Artillery STA” is a condemnation of militarism sung from the perspective of the common foot-soldier. “Scouting for targets / With a bull’s eye on your back!”

“Gadji” is a lament for the vanishing Romani culture, with assimilationist pressures depicted as a form of de facto genocide.

“Dredge (Disambiguation)” is an indictment of the oil industry’s labor-busting practices in Nigeria. Rumbling, ominous guitar rock, with subtle African percussion weaving through. The verse lyrics are packed with puns, evoking corporate doublespeak, until they’re overwhelmed by the starkness of the chorus: “Up from the ground / That’s where the bodies are buried!”

“Camden, Missouri” uses a local legend as a lens to look at America as a country that has never fully come to terms with its legacy of slavery and the fault lines of racism. “There’s a ghost at the pay phone, tryin’ to place a call / But the phone won’t take Confederate money.” It’s a raucous blues-rocker, vaguely reminiscent of the Rolling Stones.

The strummy campfire-song “Wambrechies” is a gentle satire on the patronizing Europhilia of provincial Britons: “From the beach at Folkestone I can see / I can see clear to Wambrechies / The canal and the brewery / Everything’s better in Wambrechies / It’s better to say, c’est meilleur à dit / Tout c’est meilleur en Wambrechies.”

“Down III: Over the Under” is a brief, tricky instrumental, another variation on the instrumentals that opened and closed the previous album.

“Drinkwater Park” is a celebratory number, finding hope for the redemption of consumer society in the titular park, a pastoral retreat reclaimed from industrial wasteland: “Reach into the reservoir, come up with a handful of pearls / The trees have their roots in the rubbish tip, making good on the junk of the world!”

But the redemptive mood cannot sustain itself, and “George Washington’s Farewell Address,” a snarling elegy for American democracy, closes the album on a despairing note. Over a gradually-accelerating spaghetti-western funeral march, the president’s ghost gives a furious kiss-off to the country he loved, enumerating the betrayal of his principles in a lyric mixing extracts from Washington’s own writings with sarcastic rejoinders, culminating in the howling refrain, “I’d wash my hands of the whole affair / But there’s too much blood, too much blood.”

Funny thing is, while Revolutionary Vanguard seem like a band I’d like, they don’t in any way seem like my band. I would never name a band that; I would never write songs like that; and the specificity of the song titles implies a sensibility to which I can relate, yes, but married to a background and experience utterly unlike my own.

I dunno. Perhaps I’m their Malcolm McLaren.

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