Had Leeds' most famous anarchists been around in the early 1980s instead of today, Chumbawamba would've played some kind of ill-informed, untutored guitar thrash over which to scream anti-establishment lyrics, rather than singing them (often in four-part harmony) over simplistic dancefloor beats. In that case, my bet is that the same critics who despise the band's populist pop would adore its post-Crass crash-rock.
Wait -- what's that you're saying? Chumbawamba was a Crass-influenced poli-punk band in the early '80s? And rather than while away the years in obscure anarcho-stasis, the group has modified its music while sticking to its political-message guns and pop-dadaist style? Huh. Well, that makes sense, I guess, because -- synths, samplers and drum machines and all -- the Chumbies have always essentially been a folk group. And just as they realized that punk was the folk music of '80s Britain, they realized in 1990 (around the time of Slap!) that acid house's sample-heavy everyman rebellion was the real deal, and hastily incorporated it into their already pop-worthy songwriting.
On the band's new album Readymades And Then Some (released late last year in Europe, this month in the U.S.), more so even than on the a cappella collection of English Rebel Songs, Chumbawamba delves into the folk music of the British Isles in a manner that not only pays tribute to it, but places traditional music in a contemporary setting that reinforces its power. The group samples from icons such as Irish sean nós master Joe Heany, Scottish poet Jock Purdon and rebel folkie Dick Gaughan, and English traditional singers Belle Stewart and the legendary Harry Cox, whose line from "The Pretty Ploughboy" ("And they sent him to the war / to be slain, to be slain") is Readymades' most powerful moment.
The fact remains that, while Chumbawamba has made its best record since 1994's Anarchy, it's largely down not to talent, but to two matters of taste: The band's ever-broadening taste in quality music, and its ability to disseminate political messages in tastefully subtle ways. So, rather than scream about Bush and Blair, it sings about common sailors dying by Churchill's decision in "Jacob's Ladder." And rather than a black-and-tans pub-stormer about Parliament screwing over Ireland, or a save-the-starving-children speech, Chumbawamba offers Shelley set to music, implying the 1845 famine. The music is still the Chumbies' mongrel electro-Brit-pop -- they're a bit stuck in 1993 on the music-technology front -- but the songs are more beautiful and subtle than the electro-funky-drummer rhythms might suggest.
Chumbawamba is a band that's learned to live -- even to thrive -- with its legion of music-crit detractors. Likewise, it's a band that has learned to live with its own shortcomings (technical skill) and thrive on its strengths (onstage theatrics, audience communication, taste). So while perhaps these po-mo folkies will be panned by the dozens, they'll continue to be adored by the thousands. And when some kind of tiny revolution's your goal, that seems like a fair trade.