CD Review: Street Sweeper Social Club -- 'The Ghetto Blaster EP'

Categories: CD review
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Don't let the attention-grabbing choice of a first single mislead you: Though their cover of M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" sounds pointless at all but the most eardrum-shattering volumes (and only slightly amusing at those), Tom Morello and Oakland rapper Boots Riley, as Street Sweeper Social Club, can blast a satisfying rap-rock barrage when their ideas gel. On the group's Ghetto Blaster EP, the follow-up to last year's self-titled debut album, Morello and Riley tour through redundant riffage and issue more less-than-rousing calls for revolution than I care to count -- but for a few percussive moments, they also kick ass.

One of those moments is the shoulda-been lead single from this collection, a stinging convergence of clever rhetoric and concise power-chord whomp called "The New Fuck You," in which Riley -- known previously for his work with Oakland's The Coup -- weaves a bristling before-and-after: 

Weed smoke is the new incense 
Two bucks is the new ten cents 
Three strikes is the new lynching 
Buyin' is the new rentin' 
These lines are the new molotovs 
Right now is the new Holocaust 
More troops is the new call it off 
I'm trying to pry this collar off 

Obviously, Riley's pushing the limits of believable political discontent here (the un-radical corporate conglomerate known as Warner Bros. is putting out this record, after all). But these lines are head-turners in the song, and all concerns about believability are overwhelmed when the cascading chorus reaches its the made-for-world-domination climax -- Boots' shout that "revolution is the new fuck you." The song then bounces back into Morello's jabbing groove for another heated verse, the song's brusque movements demonstrating the potential of this collaboration. If Zack de la Rocha's nasally, insectoid voice buzzed in high circles around Morello's guttural guitar slam in Rage Against the Machine, Riley's booming taunts here somehow bruise the primitive guitar lines at their base. Riley's tonal menace is less manic, less piercing, then de la Rocha's, but at times, its heft makes it more frightening. 

Morello's been writing rock riffs for rappers for nearly 20 years, though, and he's clearly starting to run out of ways to reconfigure the necessary roots and fifths. Much of the guitar work on Rage's (stellar) first album (and its second, and its third) easily eclipses the blunt batterings he serves to Riley. Tepid instrumentals sink much of Ghetto Blaster, actually, especially when Riley takes a mellow Morello moment as a chance to lay back himself. Second track "Everythang" feels positively sedate after bomb-throwing opener "Ghetto Blaster," one of the disc's best tracks. Morello mostly relies on the now-familiar tricks -- escalating pitches, metal-ized back-and-forth funk riffs, and weird tremolo wank during the verses -- that he's been using for years. While his best riffs still feel titanic, they no longer feel fresh.

So the application of luster is here left mainly to Riley, who obliges successfully about half the time. Both of the covers on Ghetto Blaster -- "Paper Planes" and "Momma Said Knock You Out" -- are skippable largely because Riley's way with others' words is far less interesting than the ones he makes up on his own. "Scars (Hold That Pose)," for example, has Riley rhyming about painful moments of poverty, which seem humorous until the pre-chorus, where he tisks, "Third month avoiding landlords is the hardest/ It's only funny 'cause you don't see where the scar is."

Yet despite the high points of both collaborators' work, Ghetto Blaster feels more like a haphazard collection of songs than a coherent effort. The sonic palette here is smaller than that on Street Sweeper Social Scene's debut album, the lyrical themes less expansive, and Morello's guitar playing, especially, feels like it was worked out just before the record button was pressed. The group's "Paper Planes" cover has to be a gimmick -- if there's anything that song doesn't need, it's a constrained rap-rock cover. And while some of the originals here would adquately soundtrack a riot -- and/or make a memorable single -- Ghetto Blaster is too spotty to be a success.

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