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Chumbawamba | WYSIWYG | review | indie | alternative | rock | Lollipop
by Jamie Kiffel
After hearing the new Chumbawamba, my folk-loving mom went straight out to buy a copy. No,WYSIWYG isn't what most people would expect from a band with a long history rooted in punk. But then again, maybe that's because it was a genuine interest in lobotomizing a capitalistically complacent society, not an urge to make noise, that started this band in the first place. And so Chumbawamba finds that punk and folk really do have something in common - the need to reach deep into our e-everything, digitized, glitched-up brains, and reprogram them to think for themselves. So this isn't Tubthumping. It's not about bassy, societally-enraged dance music. Instead, it uses the very stuff punk hates - easily-digested, musical candy sounds - to reconfigure pop... and make it really explode.
Produced like a pop rock opera, the tunes seamlessly morph into each other, repeating and foreshadowing themes from throughout the album, so listening straight through really is a different experience than listening to one tune at a time. And yes, it knows: samples like "Tommy, can you hear me?" chuck the disc's own chin right beside our own. It's heady stuff. In spite of the fact that guitarist Boff explains in the press sheet that before they started recording, the band agreed on one tenet, "no backward cymbals," the very first track opens with what sound like backward cymbals. But listen more closely. It's not cymbals but a voice, reciting, "sssstupid, sssstupid, ssstupid." If we don't pay attention to what's going on around us, that's what we'll be: complacently stupid. The British band is waking us up.
In the classic Chumbawamba way, female vocals sweetly deliver some of the harshest lines: "you'll never find me on the Hollywood A list... come and get your ass kissed," for instance. Why not slam the American entertainment industry just as you're sending your own album up through the PR offices? Not to mention the to-hell-with-DJs move of breaking up the tracks with bits of the previous tracks stuck to them. This band knows no rules, and flaunts it.
Track two, "Shake Baby Shake," could be Neil Diamond meets The Bee Gees, except for lines like "wipe the dirt from your hands, Lisa-Marie/shaking up the family with Pamela Lee" and "if you can make a cake, you can make a bomb." Spoken samples fire up the tracks like a sprinkling of fine metal filings in a toaster, culminating in a segue into "Pass it Along," a smashing, sardonic metaphor for e-culture. "Send this song to 20 people/add your name, don't break the cycle/pass it along by word of mouse/don't break the cycle, don't leave the house," the band recites soberly. With a riff of the chorus from "Our House," Chumbawamba tells us how e-culture means you never have to walk through the wrong part of town... but of course, you never get to go anywhere, either. Samples of this song thread throughout the album, giving it a torqued-tight feeling (if making it nearly impossible to scramble up and sample. To hell with club culture).
The English band goes on to disillusion pop Ameri(k)an culture with "hey, hey we're the Junkies" (a play on - what else? - The Monkees), complete with a triumphant horn section, and ending with a sober, male commentator announcing "facts" like "pretty children are popular; ugly children, cynical. Automobiles screech when they come to a stop. All problems are solved in slightly less than half an hour." Question the "factual" cornerstones of modern society, the band seems to dare us. How appropriate, then, that the music on this disc is often based on 1970s pop or even doo-wop. Even the tunes mock the message.
That's not to say that the message isn't smart. "I'm Coming Out" sings sweetly, "all dressed up in drag/inside a Pucci bodybag." Is this about gays in the public eye only coming clean after death, or about the stigma of AIDS? "Social Dogma" states briefly, "I'm just scraping the social dogma from the bottom of my soul." A tune titled "WWW Dot" does just what you'd expect. Beautifully sung and strangely selected is "New York Mining Disaster," a cover of The Bee Gees' TK, possibly commenting on the metaphorical collapse of New York's overloaded pop-junk culture.
It's fascinating to hear the English band comment on purely American phenomena like "Celebration, Florida," the Disney living community: "there's a bake sale at the school house, and they're selling innocence/they're keeping out the deviants to protect the residents." "I'm Not Sorry, I Was Having Fun" comments on the sad attempt to keep up the Woodstock Festival... and only ending in flames (that's what you get for capitalizing on an event based on everything but capitalization). Is Chumba commenting on WYSIWYG by ending the disc with the chorus, "we're dumbing down," sung in insipid, light ska style? Listen closely to the lyrics. "Are you happy here in Theme Park, U.S.A... and are the words to this song concise enough to follow?" the band asks sweetly. Their tongues slip into our ears... and then they spit. And it feels so good as their Ph-unbalanced saliva reacts with our electronically-controlled brains, so badly in need of a good short-circuit to the head.