When Audioslave released their first album, comparisons to Rage Against the Machine were inevitable. Unfortunately, they were also unfair. Audioslave had a whole different feel than Rage could have ever conceived, and musically was branching off in a totally different and new direction. The attitude was different, the affect was changed, the music was on a different path. To compare Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine was to compare the proverbial apples and oranges.
But with Tom Morello's Street Sweeper Social Club, the comparisons are easier and more valid. Morello is finally free to wallow in the funk-infused blues riffs that he powers through at every opportunity. His effect board is back in full force, bending notes and warping his solos into strange shapes. This is the Tom Morello who managed to make himself famous and made us all rethink the way things could be done.
Joining him in his endeavor is Boots Riley, formerly the chief MC of rap trio The Coup. While Riley is just as interested in making top notch protest music as Zach de la Rocha ever was, Riley’s brings a much different flair to the table. De la Rocha was a man possessed of jagged, acute, roiling fury; Riley by contrast is a much cooler customer. His social arguments are couched within his ability to seem casually disaffected, as though the injustices he speaks of are so prevalent that they barely merit mention. It’s a style that isn’t terribly removed from other reform-minded hip-hop artists such as Saul Williams, who practically just reads poetry to a beat.
Regardless, Street Sweeper Social Club’s eponymous album dabbles much closer to true rap than Rage Against the Machine dared venture. The music is much more a product of Morello providing a base beat from which Riley can espouse the necessity of rebellion. To a certain extent, this does lend the album a sort of “half-baked” feeling. Riley can provide strong rhymes with solid metaphor, but occasionally gets into a corner during the choruses and like all good MC’s, turns to the standby of simple profanity.
Still, there are foot-stomping, mob-inciting moments to be had, as in the sing along instant crowd classic “100 Little Curses.” As protest music goes, the album both succeeds and fails. It contains the right amount of vitriol, but lacks poignancy. Rather than provide focal points for fans to direct their righteous indignation, Riley and Morello allude only the vague universal themes about police, government, censors, money, etc. The album is, almost to the letter, a rebel without a cause.
Still, for those who thirst for the kind of riffs that Morello has become famous for, there’s a lot to like here. “Clap for the Killers,” and “Good Morning, Mrs. Smith,” positively drip with the kind of loose but on beat nasty riffs that Rage made so famous. Despite the fact that the song has a weak chorus, I can’t stop listening to the lead line in “the Oath.” It is totally and completely infectious, and has become part of my life, as the notes are stuck in my brain when I’m driving, when I’m working, when I’m trying to sleep. It’s one of those songs that has a perfect, simple, hook riff (see also: Pantera’s “Walk.”) I can’t wash it out of my head, no matter how times I try to replace it with something else.
There are a lot of catchy songs on the album, even if some of them like “Nobody Moves Til We Say Go,” scream to be played out to a festival crowd and maybe not much else. Still, the grooves are competent and elicit the proper head-bobbing, foot tapping response. Songs like “Nobody Moves…” or “Somewhere in the World it’s Midnight,” are undeniably old school and draw out memories of Body Count, or on their best day, Ice Cube’s “The Predator.” (I know this is a metal blog, but seriously, if you want a great old school angry rap album, check out “The Predator.” You’re welcome.)
“Street Sweeper Social Club” has all the hallmarks of an album put together by two friends who scribbled down a handful of fight songs and filled in the gaps as they went along. While I think this might end up being a one-off band, or at best an occasional distraction every five years, I would be very curious to see what would percolate if Morello and Riley decided to continue writing songs. The potential of this album is evident, it would need only to breathe and grow.
So, the album isn’t exactly going to knock “Evil Empire” off its throne, but if you need a fix, and if you can overlook the album’s superficial faults, “Street Sweeper Social Club” is catchy and virile. There’s a lot going on from a musical standpoint that we haven’t heard in a while, and is worth catching up on. Bonus points for great cover art.