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Back at their Level Best?,
This review is from: Static On The Airwaves (Audio CD)
Apart from a few lazy reviews in the media that have gone down the usual "twee, fiddly, folk, dog-on-a-string" route that the trendies have been peddling for the last 20 years, the latest album from the Levellers has been pretty well-received. Having given it a good few months to sink in, I'm happy to report that it was well-received by me too!
Like many people, the Levellers were the soundtrack to my teenage years and taught me as much about protest and alternative lifestyles as any number of the punk rock bands I used to listen to. What set the Levellers apart is the mixture of their angry punk attitude that stamps all over the smug, self-consciously old-fashioned air that permeates much of the folk scene combined with a gentleness and wistfulness in their material that made them more human and relatable than many heavier rock acts.
Static on the Airwaves seems to have captured more of this winning formula than any of their albums since, say, Mouth to Mouth.
One of the strongest points of the album is the variety. Unlike their last album, Static on the Airwaves is happy to vary the tempo and show that the Levellers can turn their hand to slow songs with just as much skill as the up tempo foot-stompers. We Are All Gunmen is a strange, dub-like track held together by a massive chorus; Truth Is is a classic Levellers barn-stormer that'll be opening or closing shows for years to come; After The Hurricaine is a mid-tempo lament with a couple of unexpected chord progressions; Mutiny and Raft of the Medusa make a fine pair of Men They Couldn't Hang style historical rock ballads, while Alone is This Darkness is a lovely, low-key acoustic song. The album closes with an instant fan-favourite in The Recruiting Sergeant; a gruff shanty done in a Pogues-ish folk style. Each track has a distinctive sound that keeps the album interesting.
Another strength of the band has always been the musicianship. A very tight rhythm section with Charlie Heather's insistant drumming and Jeremy Cunningham's funky bass backs up a strong melody from Jon Sevink's violin, while Simon Friend swiches between various instruments and Mark Chadwick holds it together on the guitar. This remains equally true on this album. Jon uses the violin wisely, playing subtle accompaniment to the quieter songs or a strong lead melody when needed. The contrast between vocalists in Mark's tuneful singing and Simon's gravelly snarl also keeps the songs interesting as they switch up vocalists every few tracks.
There are few weaknesses on Static on the Airwaves. I'm not a big fan of Sean Lakeman's sound engineering, which gives a slightly thin sound to songs that should be big and imposing. A couple of tracks, as you find on most albums, are clearly fillers, such as Second Life, and aren't as strong as the rest. There's also the unfortunate but undisputable fact that Mark just can't sing as well as he could as a younger man. He's much better here than he has been in years, but never reaches the power and quality that he had on Zeitgeist or Levelling the Land.
On the whole, though, this is a really good album. The songs are interesting and engaging. There's a real feeling of a coherent album with strong material and a band with the confidence that they can play many styles of song with equal skill. If you've got the Levellers' first four albums, this one should probably be your next purchase and if it's your first buy, it's a pretty good one to try out.