[The Guardian, 2000]
AS LIFE'S pleasures go, a new Chumbawamba album generally ranks somewhere between shingles and a breakfast of lightly toasted gravel. This time, however, they have outdone themselves. You'd have to sustain a dose of unusually voracious crabs and lock yourself in a tannery for a fortnight to duplicate the blend of pettifogging aggravation and queasy monotony induced by this record in a mere forty-five minutes. Masochists, the feeble-minded and Japanese game show hosts will be elbowing each other out of the way to get their hands on it, which should be fun for the masochists.
Just how bad are Chumbawamba? Remember the Champagne bucket soaking incident at the '98 Brits? Only Chumbawamba could make thinking adults side with John Prescott, no matter what the issue. Their big hit, Tubthumping, was a student drinking song. In other words, it was hugely popular among those too callow and booze-addled to know any different. Chumbawamba's politics (for want of a more scathing term) epitomise the kind of smug, blinkered cant which most people grow out of sooner than they do their school uniform. Of course, there are plenty of reasons to hold Chumbawamba in contempt aside from their politics, but that's a good place to start. Vapid, inane, facile and moronic; these are just a few of the words their cod-proletarian fans will have to look up to find out what I'm on about.
The problem is not that Chumbawamba are wrong, but that they're so haplessly, tepidly, snivellingly wrong. Bands have been brilliantly wrong before - Public Enemy, MC5, The Clash. Next to these polemical bomb squads, Chumbawamba scrub up like the Dave Spart Five armed with a Casiotone and a toy banjo. They're rotten at rhetoric and little better at music. And yes, there are eight of them, presumably because five alone wouldn't produce quite enough bilge.
Their thoroughgoing inadequacy may have something to do with their lineage. Although they shared no members, it's fair to say that ideologically speaking, Chumbawamba rose - crumpled and snotty from the get-go - like a Kleenex from the ashes of those original anarcho-dolts, Crass. After charmlessly hectoring the same two men and their dog at venues up and down the land, they elected to put a little sparkle in their act, to go pop. Tunes, trumpets, bodysuits, glitter. But there's little point sugaring the pill when the pill is far too thick to swallow.
Basically, Chumbawamba transformed themselves into the musical equivalent of those wooden toys carved by Latvian beet farmers and foisted by a certain type of parent upon children who really want a Playstation. Then came Tubthumping, that ugly, beery fluke of a hit single. But unlike the equally persistent Pulp, who also ascended on the back of an anthem, Chumbawamba have no reserves of intelligence, imagination or inspired songwriting to keep them going. They merely have the diminishing returns demonstrated on WYSIWYG, and it doesn't get much more diminished than that.
WYSIWYG is nothing if not eclectic. It showcases its creators' purblindness across a wide array of genres. MOR, rap, trip hop, power pop, ska, breakbeat, comic country - Chumbawamba are shocking at the lot of them. They grasp the basic techniques with the proficiency of the Rock School house band, then deploy them with exactly as little understanding of the spirit behind them. To Chumbawamba, each style is no more than a platform for lyrical pamphleteering executed with the subtlety, strategy and devastating impact of a playground attack with a faulty, dribbling water-pistol. Settling like icing sugar atop the entire business, the pure, clear voice of their female singer is possessed of a sanctimonious folksiness unrivalled since the heyday of Joan Baez. The overall effect is one of being serenaded by wee Piskeys flogging copies of Socialist Worker.
The band's sole moment of grace comes with a note-for-note cover of the Bee Gees' immaculate New York Mining Disaster. How fitting that - like the teen pop acts Chumbawamba so often deride, under the misguided assumption that they are somehow preferable - they should turn to the Brothers Gibb for something actually worth performing in the first place.
With luck, and the wind at their backs, Chumbawamba will now sail into the obscurity they so richly deserve. As the aptly-titled I'm With Stupid boasts, “You won't catch me living or dead on the Hollywood A-list.” Now that's what I call making a virtue out of necessity.
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