David Rovics,
(Ever Reviled, 2003)

It's popular to proclaim that protest in America is dead, that people just aren't politically active anymore. I came across a recent article that cited, as its proof, the lack of any good protest songs. This self-blinkered author casually dismissed all the very loud anti-war protests of the past few years, the deaths of activists for dozens of causes, the enormous volume of social critique both left and right available any day on uncounted blogs, by stating that, if people still felt all that strongly about the world situation, where were the good, singable protest songs? With the very small respect due to such specious suppositions, I would suggest that a number of those songs are on David Rovics' Return.

For the tunes alone, this is an album worth picking up. Those dead set against leftist politics should be warned that they will find themselves humming the songs if they give Return a chance. This is folk-rock with an emphasis on the rock, blunt force beats with sharp-bladed lyrics. Rovics never oversimplifies his message, or talks down to the audience. Instead, he manages to finesse the phrase "nonaggression treaty" into a catchy beat or turn a thoughtful discussion of social motivations into a driving chorus that would be popular for any social crusader. There's a brief flirtation with rap in "Reichstag Fire," a bluegrass accent to "Palestine" and sly folk-rock wildness to "Resistance," all handled equally well. The one spoken-word piece, a commentary on the occupation of Palestine, serves to illustrate how crucial and effective Rovics' music is to his message. Without the honey-pepper coating of a tune, the sentiments expressed are almost too raw to hear.

Make no mistake, this is seriously leftist stuff. "Reichstag Fire" outright accuses the Bush regime of conspiracy against the country; "Strike a Blow Against the Empire" would work for any movement against any large power, but is rather obviously directed against the world's only superpower. This isn't an America-hating album; Rovics' pride in the country and faith in its citizenry comes through with almost painful intensity in the opening "After the Revolution" and several songs honoring those who have stood for varied causes. But the viewpoints of others are also understood here, if not condoned. Any who have honestly wondered why people might hate America should hear "Promised Land," a song that captures the mad desperation of a terrorist from within the sympathetic confines of his own mind.

If you do lean towards the left in your politics, Rovics' work is a shot in the arm. Whether criticizing his own country or taking a close painful look at the frightening situation between Israel and Palestine, Rovics has a knack for calling the listener to attention without pinning them with the blame. This album is a call to action, not a therapy session or a guilt trip. While singing about poverty, oppression and patterns of abuse he manages to inject his music with defiant hope and a moral certainty of optimism. His rather plain voice is exactly the right vehicle for these flights of idealistic fancy; even the admitted unlikely utopia seen in "After the Revolution" doesn't seem quite impossible when couched in terms of accordion playing and basic communication, and delivered with by such an utterly normal, seemingly rational voice.

It's too easy and common to describe music as "moving" but in this case it's very true. Hearing these songs puts an itch for action under my skin, a desperate urge to do something - anything -- to make my voice known and have an effect on the world around me. Return carries David Rovics' passion straight through the ear and into the heart.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 10 July 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.