The best of us with a rooster-at-dawn past have (sigh) settled down, turned to tea and wine and have fiddled with our shirt fronts while discussing how to distinguish demographics from dim sums. Frankly, that's what I thought had also happened to London rapcore-ragga punk-smeared band Asian Dub Foundation.
Uh-uh. Not a chance.
The boys who made me do unmentionable things while their album Community Music spun on my sound system a decade ago are still storming the Bastille, this time with a vicious backbeat and genuine ill-will. Their latest album, A History of Now, is as fresh as burnt toast with the smoke still rising.
Take the title track. The chemical electronica start tumbles out into solid chunks of beat and vox. The ska-rap is vicious as singers Akhtar Ahmed and Al Rumjen belt out with rising force, “You can't download the sun/ you can't download the sea... /you’ll never download me.” This is the stuff of pre-kaput Rage Against the Machine.
The opening track, ‘A new London eye’, a frenetic, ‘distort-pedal on’ cracker, foregoes of any gentle intro to the album to come. This is an urban landscape filtered through boom’n’bass. You can see the veins on Rumjen’s throat as he sings, with undulating dhol-assisted pit stops in between.
I don’t remember the last time ‘clenched fist’ music was so danceable as it is in ‘Where’s all the money gone?’ Rumjen mainlines the zeitgeist as he runs through the line, “I'm hoping the renaissance is approaching/ but in this credit crunch you need a telescope/ when so many jobs are folding/ the furnace is scolding/ thank god I’m holding a heart full of hope and a pocket full of skittles” which skids into the hand-waving post-apocalyptic party line that is the name of the song. Asian Dub Foundation gets the post-bankers’ scam scene bang on. Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker couldn’t have done better.
‘This land is not for sale’, sung with passionate zeal by Romany singer Kerieva, lacks the elbow length distance the other tracks keep from in-your-face sloganeering. The opening line, “If Zapata was here, he’d be with us” and the Spanish that follows (¡Resistire! ¡Resistire! Vivir tu vida”) will go down well with the Che t-shirted ones, but it’s a bit too sincere and fangless for me.
A History of Now brims with an energy that only controlled violence can generate. It finds the Asian Dub Foundation in vital mode. This is a band that mixes their politics with their groove so well that you can’t taste the wobbly bits. And with a beat looping about like it does in the album, hardcore dance music hasn't been so revolutionary for a while.
The 18th century poet Michael Madhusudhan Dutt, after starting off writing English poetry in the style of his hero Lord Byron, found his voice when he switched to writing in Bengali. Portland folk-rock band the Decemberists had been mining their music from the British folk rock scene. With their latest album, The King is Dead (frontman Colin Meloy ‘adores’ Morrissey, but no, it has nothing in common to the Smiths’ album The Queen is Dead) the Decemberists find their voice in pure, landscape-hugging American folk music. The voice, however, leaves me a bit high and dry on a haystack.
The jug and thump of ‘Don’t carry it all’ is a paen to nature and the rustic life, done gently and with Protestant non-fuss. I start thinking of REM when we come to the foot-tapping, Michael Stipe-sounding Meloy in ‘Calamity song’. And sure enough, I realise that REM guitarman Peter Buck is playing a 12-string guitar on this sunny song (as he is in two other tracks).
The bluesy ‘Down by the water’ is moving, with Gillian Welch providing a radiant harmony. There’s a Neil Young tucked inside this water song that stands out from the rest of the album. Perfectly decent numbers like ‘This is why we fight’ and ‘All arise!’ are high on authenticity — the fiddle, the banjo, the harmonica, the organ all falling into line in a musicologist’s army. While the product is pleasant enough, as a whole The King is Dead is an ‘American music’ album more suited to be heard while reading an article on folk revival in the Span magazine rather than on any new fangled thing like a CD player or an iPod.