The Living Things
Ahead of the Lions
atton Oswalt has a great bit about how the Republican Party stole rock ‘n’ roll, contrasting the vital, amped-up soundtracks of The O’Reilly Factor and other politically conservative outposts with the polite eclecticism and willful obscurity of liberal bastions like NPR.
Truthfully, however, it’s not just the right-wing pundits who are winning the battle for your solar plexus. The handful of artists (almost entirely pop-country) who espouse conservative ideologies and sentiments have been kicking the asses of left-of-center rockers for the last few years when it comes to encoding those messages in music that can really shake the foundations of a large number of listeners.
Not that the post-9/11 era hasn’t produced a wealth of compelling statements from liberal-minded musicians—Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Ted Leo and Sleater-Kinney to name a few. Still, many of those artists have couched their treatises in sounds that could scarcely be mistaken for calls-to-arms, and even the ones who did rarely tailored their salvos to suit mass consumption. Meanwhile, millions hear Montgomery Gentry and Toby Keith and Gretchen Wilson, and (no matter what you think of their views) there’s no doubt they make reactionary politics rousing and occasionally even inspiring.
On our side (whoops) we can claim Green Day, who have nonetheless become a little too contemplative and reflective to really convincingly rally the troops, as well as System of a Down, who are brilliant and fierce and politically aware but who also spend a sizable chunk of their time singing about celebrity softball and selling ass for heroin.
The Living Things meanwhile seem unlikely upholders of rock’s anti-establishment heritage, copping riffs from the same sources as causeless rebels like The Vines, Burning Brides, and Jet. For better or worse, however, this Missouri-bred, L.A.-based band’s antipathy is far more focused and far-flung than its stylistic siblings, trading the bum trips of breakups and bad drugs for an unsophisticated but firmly-held hatred for the powers that be. The substantive quality of the political commentary found on Ahead of the Lions may not measure up to Rage Against the Machine’s most agitprop knee jerking, but there’s no questioning the sentiment is clearly and loudly expressed with propulsive rhythms, radio-palatable hooks and real production values. It may sound like faint praise, but the band’s ability to make plainly dyspeptic headbangers that really bang is no small feat at a time when powerful popular dissent and effective mainstream rock are both in such short supply.
Opener “Bombs Below” fulfills this promise both sonically and philosophically, lead singer Lillian Berlin’s sarcastic wartime jibes delivered in a perfect facsimile of Iggy Pop’s bleeding-throat trademark. “I Owe” somehow outdoes it, Berlin this time phrasing like Thurston Moore, ticking off bureaucratic acronyms with gathering fury before settling on the bland but undeniably crowd-pleasing affirmation “all we need is love.”
More than just perennially full-throttle punks, The Living Things are equally adept at low-slung, cocksure mood-setters like “God Made Hate,” the Stones-quoting “Bom Bom Bom” and the uplifting “Keep It ‘Til You Fold,” still finding ways to work images of desert sand, messiahs and televised suicide into the fuzzed-out, slightly laconic mix.
Regardless, muscular freak-outs like the police-baiting “On All Fours” and “March in Daylight” best represent the band’s strengths. On the latter, Berlin starts off resembling a ‘roid-enhanced Elvis Costello, but the chorus is pure Cobain—breathless, keening and positively feral.
Of course, the contrivance of the band’s unabashed politics has its limitations. Just as right-wing stump-speechers like Charlie Daniels and Daryl Worley will never strike the same universal chords as Everyman diarists Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, Berlin won’t touch the artless brilliance of Iggy or K.C. if he remains preoccupied with railing against cops and the C.I.A.
Still, that shouldn’t undersell what the Living Things have accomplished here, namely to help reinject some rock ‘n’ roll into oppositional liberalism, not to mention rough up commercial rock’s general ambivalence with some genuine if not exactly profound polemics. Not bad for a bunch of boys from St. Louis with a name that rips off an ELO song, huh?