What You See Is What You Get

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Nearly everyone that was seduced by Chumbawamba's irresistible "Tubthumping" wasn't aware that the band had not only kicked around for over decade, but that they were politically active, social satirists with a penchant for anarchy, both in their politics and music. Of course, nobody would be able to discern that from "Tubthumping," since its sendup of lads shouting "lager, lager, lager" was so accurate that it appealed to the very audience it was spoofing. Still, it was a terrific pop single, and it broke down the doors for the group in America, where Alice Nutter made headlines when she encouraged fans to shoplift their record. If America was amused by Chumbawamba and their antics, the band was even more amused, even befuddled, by the U.S. -- so much so that they decided to make What You See Is What You Get, their sequel to Tubthumping, a snapshot of their view of the land of excess. Consisting of 22 songs in under 48 minutes, WYSIWYG is as fast and furious and saturated with pop culture -- just like life at the end of the 20th century. Every song moves so fast that the album initially seems a bit like a blur, albeit a tuneful, clever blur. The very brevity of the tracks guarantees that there isn't a track here as chart-friendly as Chumbawamba's fluke hit, but there are plenty of melodies and catchy hooks -- they just happen to be pieced together like a collage with a bunch of sound samples, found sounds, snippets of television, spoken words, drum loops, and the like, with all of it folding back onto itself in the second half of the record. As social satirists, the group is a little obvious this time around -- "Hey Hey We're the Junkies" is set to the tune of "Hey Hey We're the Monkees," "Pass It Along" sends up Microsoft's slogan "Where Do You Want to Go Today," the 1999 Woodstock riots are justified by "I'm Not Sorry, I Was Having Fun," there are shout-outs to "any Branch Davidians in the house" on "Jesus in Vegas," and they name-drop Jerry Springer -- but maybe the point is that America is a little obvious and superficial. Or maybe Chumbawamba falls prey to the typical curse of Brits in America, where they sit above the fray and comment bemusedly on the antics of those silly Yanks (a criticism leveled at everyone from Blur to Sam Mendes' Oscar-winning American Beauty). Either way, it doesn't matter, since WYSIWYG delivers far more than anyone could have expected, especially anyone that considered the group one-hit wonders. It may cover too much ground and be too sprawling for tubthumpers, but it's pretty smart and tuneful and often funny. It'll inevitably sound dated, possibly just two years after its release, but it's a pretty fun snapshot of the end of the American century.

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