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(Metaphor 920 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/20/2006)
Topical songs are a long tradition, going back to Woody Guthrie and before. Singing about the news of the day probably came to its pinnacle in the 1960s, when folkies like Tom Paxton and the late Phil Ochs, and popular piano-wielding satirist Tom Lehrer were at their peak. I suppose it could be argued that hard times inspire topical songwriters. While Tom Paxton has been a constant and welcome presence from the Johnson through the Clinton administrations, as has another pianist-political satirist, Mark Russell for nearly as long; it is the current Bush presidency that has really inspired a whole new generation of topical songwriters and protest singers, including Ethan Daniel Davidson, David Rovics, and Rod MacDonald to take to the musical soapbox. And the Capitol Steps, the political comedy revue has just marked its 25th anniversary.
The current state of affairs in Washington has also inspired a burst of creative output from someone who has become one of today's best musical political satirists, Roy Zimmerman, who has just released two CDs, one a Christmas recording, and the other, which we shall deal with here, called Faulty Intelligence.
Back in the 1990s, Southern California-based Roy Zimmerman founded the Foremen, who created some of the best political musical satire of that decade, skewering everyone from Oliver North to Bill Clinton, and they did live performances of those songs in the presence of each of those men. The group released two major label CDs, which soon went out of print, and the band essentially disappeared from the national scene. But over the last year or so, some of the Foremen recordings hve been reissued, and now Zimmerman is hard at work turning out new material for the current day.
One thing about political satire is that, by its nature, it has had a short shelf life. Today's Washington folly is quickly forgotten especially with the extraordinary short news cycle that the commercial media has imposed. It's a rare satirical song that can stand up years after the fact. What is remarkable about Phil Ochs and Tom Lehrer is how their songs can remain engaging or funny a generation after the events inspiring them have faded into the history books. What is scary is how many of those songs are still relevant, especially with so many parallels between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam war.
Roy Zimmerman's targets tend to be the figures on the right wing and their exploits, and at least from one decade to the next, Zimmerman's songs from the 1990s with the Foremen still hold up well, despite, or perhaps even more so, after the recent election results. On Faulty Intelligence, despite some references to the recently dismissed Donald Rumsfeld, even the most topical material is likely to be relevant to at least the end of Bush's term, and a there are some songs about issues that are likely to be around for quite a while.
As with the Foremen, Zimmerman doesn't just sing and play his guitar, he likes to evoke musical styles to reinforce his lyrical satire, though unlike the Capitol Steps and Mark Russell, Zimmerman creates original tunes to go with his lyrics. He's also a great wordsmith, drawing praise from none other than Tom Lehrer for his rhyming skill and general literacy.
Zimmerman is joined by a variable cast, including a number of Los Angeles area studio musicians, along with two of the former member of the Foremen, Doug Whitney and Kenny Rhodes, though there are some songs that are done mostly solo.
Opening the CD is one of those pieces that it is a satire in both words and music. Hello NSA takes up the subject of the Bush Administration's eavesdropping on citizens as a kind of early Elvis Presley ballad. <<>>
During the 2004 Republican Convention in New York, Zimmerman was performing around in the City, and one of the songs in his repertoire created for the occasion, was Chickenhawk, noting some of the many figures in the Bush Administration's conduct of the Iraq war and their vocal media supporters who all got out of military service in Vietnam. Zimmerman includes that song on Faulty intelligence, and it seems more relevant than ever. <<>>
There is a good old fashioned folk song which is served up in three short parts throughout the CD. Glory Bound Train is an examination of what Zimmerman sees as a typical White House press conference. <<>>
Zimmerman pokes fun at the abstinence campaign aimed at teens, and does it in a kind of Motown style on Abstain with Me. <<>>
Also on subject of mores, is a rather biting observation on trhe controversy over same-sex marriage, called Defenders of Marriage. <<>>
Zimmerman keeps his knives out on This Is the War on Terror, done as a kind of 1960s rock production. <<>>
With the Department of Homeland Security consolidating a number of the government's spy agencies, Zimmerman comes up with his own spy-movie-themed song called CIDIATFBI. <<>>
Zimmerman redoes a Foremen song from the 1990s with only one small change. My Conservative Girlfriend, was one of the Foremen's most popular songs, and it still has relevance. <<>>
The immigration issue is addressed on one of the CD's more clever tracks, Ingles, sung, mostly, of course, in Spanish. <<>>
Zimmerman does express some optimism on a song called America, which brilliantly encapsulates the diversity and paradoxes of the country. <<>>
From a purely craft standpoint, Roy Zimmerman's new CD Faulty Intelligence is one of the best pieces of musical political satire and topical songs in a long time. Of course, what you think of his music likely depends on your political orientation, though after the 2006 election, it's apparent that his music has a pretty wide potential audience. As he did with the Foremen in the 1990s, Zimmerman addresses the issues of the day with a good deal of cleverness and literacy, while doing it with all new original music, in styles that help to underscore the impact of his words. Obviously a fair number of these songs will end up being historical artifacts after the administration of George W. Bush, but like other good political satirists, some of Zimmerman's work is likely to have staying power, in part because some of the issues, like the so-called culture wars are not going away anytime soon. Musically the album is also worthy with good arrangements that enhance the songs.
Our grade for sound quality is an "A Minus." The mix has everything audible, but it's not an audiophile recording. It has a rather flat, two-dimensional quality. But the recording captures what it needs to do.
Roy Zimmerman has been touring for a while now with a one-man 90-minute show that he calls "Faulty Intelligence," which features these and other songs. He has performed with people ranging from George Carlin and Bill Maher to k.d. lang. Faulty Intelligence the album cements his position as one of the best political satirical songwriters of these days and times.
(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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