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UN Review

by Johnny Loftus

Though its clickable stream isn't as satisfying as the manual tune of a shortwave, Internet radio is still an effective international transmitter for localized sounds and ideas. The crew of a supertanker might joyfully discover a stream for New York hip-hop powerhouse Hot 97, for example, and blast Jay-Z into the inky Indian Ocean night. Conversely, the Internet grants a profound reach to the rants of the average soapbox idealist, whose words might burst with sudden and unlikely force from tinny desktop speakers half a world away. These bitstream cultural transfers -- both the wanted and the unwanted -- are the impetus for the grumbling lovely global village of Chumbawamba's UN. Its rousing punk past put on a shelf, the veteran collective of outsider Brits has crafted a set from international bits of found sound and World Wide Web crosstalk both extreme and goofy. There's the usual vocal harmony keen, and a bed of acoustic guitars and subtle electronic programming holds the whole thing together. "Just Desserts" begins with a scratchy prayer group recording, before winding into an accordion-fueled support platform for Global Pastry Uprising. Is that Billy Bob Thornton telling the anecdote at "Everything You Know Is Wrong"'s start? Unclear, but the cut's poppy acoustic bop cloaks its recitation of some of the most significant conspiracies, controversies, and violent events of the recent era, not to mention Chumba's position that stuffed-shirt agendas were behind them all. The song's a rabble-rouser, for sure, but just one in this UN's nation-by-nation Bad Stuff survey. It joins "Be With You," which gives support to Zimbabwean cricketers protesting President Mugabe; "Buy Nothing Day"'s endorsement of Adbusters magazine's infamous anti-consumerism movement; and "I Did It for Alfie," the story of a parent's personal protest against the world he brought his child into. These themes tend to take precedence over Chumbawamba's music. It has evolved into a nice-enough amalgam of samples and folktronica, but can be a bit bland on its own terms. The music seems much more comfortable when its political and social observations are seamless with its beats and breaks. Standouts in this respect include "A Man Walks into a Bar," which is topped off with evocative Latin rhythms, but is also a clever and explosive indictment of the Cuban embargo. "Following You" is a hopeful tribute to humanizing urban space, and "Rebel Code" celebrates Linux and the Open Source Revolution. By posting missives about problems on an international scale (and using the Internet for source material), Chumbawamba has effectively moved its brand of activism into a new phase as borderless as the powers-that-be it struggles against.

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