Easy Listening It Ain't

I hate to sound superficial, but the bands I’m instantly infatuated with often disappoint me soonest. I tend to hammer a favorite song until it gets stale, and then trade the disc in for two bucks toward a new one I can’t get "free" from BMG.

Conversely, good music (like truth) can be hard to listen to at first. Nobody listens to Dylan because of his lovely singing voice, and for me, Rage Against the Machine was another band that took some warming up to.

With my solid Mennonite upbringing, I was initially put off by all of the shouting—i.e. rap—and generous profanity, mostly F-bombs hurled at the status quo. Eventually, though, I came to discover that these aren’t just potty-mouthed punks barfing out the usual urban angst. They are revolutionary—musically and lyrically—with a powerful fusion of hip-hop and hard rock driven by Tom Morella’s cutting-edge guitar technique, which mimics but eschews turntables, computer sampling, and genetic modification. Lyricist and vocalist Zack de la Rocha is, as his lyrics say, "tha anti-myth rhythm rock shocker," ricocheting between poetry, protest chant, and political rant.

I’ve come to listen to Rage the same way everyone should listen to Malcolm X—the young, angry Malcolm X. Once I get over the shock of being called a white devil, I’m challenged by the truth in his perspective—one rarely heard on the news or in the pews.

Released on election day 1999, Rage’s third album, The Battle of Los Angeles, offers just such a compelling perspective. "Testify" condemns the war on Iraq ("Mass graves for the pump"), "Maria" speaks for sweatshop workers, "Voice of the Voiceless" demands justice for "my brother Mumia," "Guerrilla Radio" attacks the corporate media, and "War Within a Breath" continues themes of Zapatista solidarity from their previous album, Evil Empire.

And though my consciousness is raised by Rage’s perspective, I needn’t accept their entire philosophy. When, in "New Millennium Homes," de la Rocha sings, "Violence is in all hands/ Embrace it if need be," I half agree—we are all complicit in the structural violence involved in, say, the sewing of our garments—but while he embraces insurrection, I embrace the example of Jesus.

Unfortunately, Rage, á la Marx, equates Jesus with opium, portraying his sacrificial nonviolence as the betrayal of his revolutionary potential. "You shackle tha minds with events on tha cross," says a line from their first album. For those who believe that Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection were the very essence of his revolutionary potential, Rage’s attitude stands as a challenge to prove it—to demonstrate that God’s love is more liberating than violence.

AS RAGE’S SONG "Mic Check" asks, "Who got tha power...Tha priest tha book or tha congregation?"—implying the latter—Chicago indy band Ballydowse answers with a qualified "none of the above"—that though we all must oppose injustice, God alone has "tha power" to transform a hurting world.

Unlike Rage, which has achieved celebrity status on a corporate label, Ballydowse’s social conscience springs directly from a radical faith lived among the marginalized. Made up of eight members of the Jesus People USA community, which ministers to Chicago’s homeless and addicted, the band’s perspective is spelled out in the title track of their debut album, The Land, the Bread, and the People: "Holy Father we all want bread...I know your grace is man’s first need, but I can/no longer hold the pain I’ve seen."

Even as their song "Redhands" decries Rage’s call for insurrection—"revolution veers and/fades. Power corrupts, no future is built/with the tools of hate,"—apathetic Christianity, the radical Right, and idolatrous capitalism all take a good drubbing: "What’s it mean to buy and own when all is God’s and God’s alone...Our glory is indeed our shame if our comfort breeds on others’ pain."

Ballydowse’s style has been described as a stew of punk, Celtic, Oi!, Klezmer, goth, and world music. If those labels cloud more than clarify, consider their instrumental lineup: guitar, bass, and drums accented by violin, mandolin, didgeridoo, whirligig, bodhran, bullroarer, moohran, bag pipes, and Tibetan throat singing (!).

Rough around the edges technically, Ballydowse isn’t an easy first listen, either. The punk/Celtic mix is uneven at times, and Andrew Mandell’s raw vocals take some deciphering, but as with Rage, your trips to the lyric sheet will be rewarded with literate and relentless calls for justice, deserving of a long hard listen.

RYAN BEILER is news/Internet assistant at Sojourners.

The Battle of Los Angeles. Rage Against the Machine. Epic, 01/01/1999.

The Land, the Bread, and the People. Ballydowse. Grr records, 01/01/01998.

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