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VA – Rock Against Bush Vols. 1 & 2

Various Artists
Rock Against Bush Vols. 1 & 2
Fat Wreck Chords

Last June, when Ronald Reagan finally moseyed off to that big ranch in the sky, I came across something former Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail had written about his halcyon days–and more specifically, about a 1983 anti-Gipper concert she attended on the state capitol steps in Olympia, Washington. “For me, this political idea of being punk and building community all started with ‘Rock Against Reagan,'” she wrote of the show. “It might not have been the most articulate political analysis, but it was an important cultural moment…. I remember the bands at R.A.R. played on a flatbed truck.”

So let a thousand flatbeds roll. Teflon Ron left ’80s punks screaming at a wall, their entreaties sticking to the mass culture like an anarchy tag spray-painted on the side of the Death Star. Clinton was almost worse, twisting his liberal base into pretzel-knots of ethical bumfuzzlement. But George W. Bush’s extra-value combo of supersize doofiness and big-hat-no-cattle arrogance has given the fizzled, fragmented coalition of the illin’ that is the artistic left a new sense of purpose. From Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit to the emo-indie Plea for Peace and Music for America, from Ani DiFranco’s “Vote Dammit” tour to Nashville’s Music Row Democrats, from the excellent indie-electronic-avant-rap compilation Peace Not War to the folkie-global Not in Our Name, the anti-Bush benefit is rock’s newest growth industry.

A few of these projects want to turn your red state blue; some are content to just fire up the choir. The activist’s mix tape Peace Not War features Billy Bragg lamenting “The Price of Oil,” Yo La Tengo fretting over Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War,” and a slew of electronic and hip-hop artists chanting down Bush and Blair’s respective Babylons. Future Soundtrack for America, a MoveOn/Music for America fundraiser, musters Death Cab for Cutie, R.E.M., the Flaming Lips, Bright Eyes, et al. to offer a poke in the soul to indie snobs who might have abjured politics before G-Dub scared ’em straight. OK Go turns the Zombies’ hopeful hip-shake “This Will Be Our Year” into an embittered liberal’s wedding jam, and Tom Waits hasn’t sounded this openhearted since he was writing only about hookers.

The two Rock Against Bush volumes are unique in splitting the difference between Berkeley and Bumfuck. With his Fat Wreck Chords label, “Fat Mike” Burkett has parlayed the market share he earned fronting fratski-punk outfit NOFX into an Everydude brand that could fill V.F.W. halls in Kansas as well as hardcore dives in southern California. Rock Against Bush is his attempt to spur a half-pipe populism, inspiring “once-dormant, apathy-riddled 18- to 24-year-old voters” to pogo up and be counted. The albums, which benefit Burkett’s registration drive PunkVoter, play like the American Pie soundtrack baked at 911 degrees Fahrenheit. Alt-rock ringers (No Doubt, Foo Fighters) storm the barricades alongside tween-punk stars (the Ataris, New Found Glory, Sum 41), graybeard agitators (Bad Religion, Jello Biafra), and Warped mainstays (you name ’em, they’re here). No neck muscle goes unflexed in pursuit of a more perfect union.

The politics on display tend toward the simplistic (war, apathy, oppression bad; peace, action, freedom good). But framing policy initiatives in two-minute songs isn’t easy (“I can’t breathe! / I can’t stay alive! / There’s too much pork in House Bill 23H-85!”). And the music’s we-mean-it-man urgency and mall-punk spunk are undeniable. Besides, a little bile goes a long way, and since a number of the songs are re-releases and only “political” by fiat, they ask listeners to sow their own ideological seeds, which is more democratic anyway. A Rancid song about getting sober is also about wising up to responsibility in a world passing you by. Sleater-Kinney’s “Off With Your Head” could be about ignoring a mouthy ex–or tuning out the latest fear-mongering terror alert. “Sink, Florida, Sink,” by Gainesville roots-thrashers Against Me!, is a blanket salvo of act-local self-loathing; Flogging Molly blather away in a tradition of Celtic rage that goes back to Oliver Cromwell, and the rollicking Dropkick Murphys edutain your unorganized ass on labor history. (There’s also a helpful DVD in each volume that chronicles Bush’s myriad screwups.) But just before things get too dour–ah, that good-time American left-Minnesota sugar-punks the Soviettes bust out the Day-Glo hazmat suits and do the “Paranoia Cha Cha.”

A little advice for any forward-thinking punkers already mulling their contributions to Vol. 3: Adding “ironic” George Bush sound bites to a cookie-cutter punk song about freedom is sticking it to no Man. And ask yourself this: Against Bush? Great. But what are you for? Whether or not November 2 ends up being moving day at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the U.S. will still be in Iraq, the environment will still be a mess, and big corporations will still be writing the tax code.

No one expects Yellowcard to do the legwork on health-care reform. But now that the vote-rock movement’s thriving, what kind of future will it demand? One recent New York hip-hop fundraiser was called “Democracy Is Like Sex”–the implication being, it’s not healthy if we only have it in a darkened booth once every four years. In other words, get it while you can, as often as possible.

Vol. 1, B+
Vol. 2, B