This, the band’s 17th (or 18th, or 19th, depending how you count them) album, is a concept album (‘concept’ as in ‘idea’. Above all, ideas are what Chumbawamba thrive on), an album full of ideas specifically about music. Music both good and bad, music celebrated and music ridiculed.
Music. Since they’ve been banging away on biscuit tins and twanging bits of string attached to tea-chests for the best part of 25 years, it’s probably about time Chumbawamba turned their attention to this huge, sprawling, hydra-headed monster. Its history, its stories, its heroes and its villains. A sweep through several hundred years of what music means to people and what it means to the band.
ABCDEFG is musically eclectic and wide-ranging, from acapella to pop to folk to jazz, a mix-up of ideas to reflect its subject matter. That subject matter includes a gentle hymn to teenage under-the-pillow discovery of music heard on late-night transistor radio; a celebration of the marching songs written by soldiers in the First World War; the story of how people had to battle against State Communist ideology to play their music; a poke at the folk world’s obsession with collection and authenticity; the story of the concentration camp survivor who disrupted the first playing of Wagner in Israel by swinging a football rattle.
There’s a lot of stuff on this album – both literate (Chumbawamba love to use music to talk about history, politics and philosophy) and funny (Chumbawamba would be the first people to poke holes in the seriousness of this history, politics and philosophy). The stuff on this album is played on a battery of instruments (by the band) and augmented superbly by contributions on various songs from:
Chopper of Oysterband on cello
Jon Boden of Bellowhead on fiddle
Belinda O’Hooley (ex-Unthanks) on piano
…and various others who don’t get mentioned in the press release because they’re not famous enough. It’s the music business, what do you expect? An industry built on the ideas of art and ego, entertainment and communication. Where else other than on ABCDEFG can you hear a song about Metallica’s sanctioning of their music being used as a torture method in Iraq? About Stalin’s cultural war against Shostakovitch? About the ubiquitous iPod headphone tsk tsk tsk tsk tsk tsk tsk tsk drowning out the birdsong?
Music. It’s about time someone wrote an albumful of songs about music, if only to rescue the idea from the several MOR eulogies to ‘the power of music’ that spring to mind (‘Thankyou for the Music’ by Abba keeps popping into my brain. This album is nothing like that).