July 31, 2012

Music Review: Nona Hendryx - Mutatis Mutandis

There used to be a strong connection between popular music and its audience. This was especially true of protest music, but even regular pop music spoke to the interests and concerns of those listening to it. However, the more music has been taken out of the hands of individuals and become big business with a bottom line, the more it has been watered down so overall it has become more about style than content. Worse yet is the cult of celebrity that has sprung up surrounding the performers making them objects of admiration for their fame and wealth instead of their talent or what they have to say.

While there are some exceptions they seem to be fewer and fewer each year. So it was wonderful to hear the new CD from Nona Hendryx, Mutatis Mutandis, being released July 31 2012 on Ani DiFranco's label, Righteous Babe Records. Not only do her lyrics express opinions on subjects most people are uncomfortable even talking about, musically the disc is exciting, passionate and raw. Even better is when listening to Hendryx you feel her connection to what she's singing about. Topics range from religion to politics but she performs them in a way that anybody listening to the songs can relate to them. They're about what we see on television, what we hear in the news and what we see on the streets around us and delivered by a voice whose experiences of them are much the same as ours.
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The opening song, "The Tea Party", isn't about American history, but the political party that has co-opted history in an attempt to lend itself credibility. Against a driving funk backdrop Hendryx outlines all the ways these self-styled patriots are really the anti-thesis of what America stands for. "They say they want to take their country back, but don't they know it wasn't theirs and that's a fact". However the song isn't just the usual liberal whining about those bad guys on the right. Instead Hendryx spells out the reality behind The Tea Party's fine sounding rhetoric and exposes their real agenda. For a party who claims to be all about liberty and freedom they sure do want to deny a lot of people the freedom and liberty to be who they are and make up their own minds about subjects.

Critiquing religion and churches is always a sensitive subject because it's too easy to paint everyone with the same brush and make sweeping pejorative statements which are as much an injustice as the behaviour being protested. In "Temple Of Heaven" Hendryx walks the fine line of being critical of the way some people use religion as a means to an end without coming down on either any specific denomination or faith itself. There's nothing wrong with believing or going to the church of your choice, what's wrong are those out there pushing hatred in the name of their God. Far too many songs of this type alienate the majority of people because they come across as anti-religious, By being very specific with her target Hendryx increases the chances people will pay attention to what she's saying and makes the song far more credible than if she just complained about "church" or religion.

What I really liked about Hendryx's approach to her material was she continually found ways to sing about a subject that didn't make it sound like she was preaching to us or she's somehow morally superior to us. To quote Lou Read, the last thing we need is another self-righteous rock star. Hendryx doesn't come across as either self-righteous or a star. Listen to her "environmental" song "Oil In The Water", and you'll hear her talking about oil spills -"there's oil on the water that no rain will wash away" - but she doesn't just talk about the evils of the oil industry. She's created a song which talks about how oil spills are a symptom of what's wrong with society today. The song is about corporate greed, true enough, but its also about how we've all become disassociated from the world around us and the danger that represents. Even better, like all the tunes on this disc, she doesn't make any distinction between those listening to her music and her. We're all in this together and nobody is exempt from responsibility.
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While I could go on and on about all the songs on this disc (her adaptation of the Billie Holliday classic "Strange Fruit" - "Stranger Fruit" is brilliant and "The Ballad Of Rush Limbaugh" will surprise you) I want to make special mention of "Black Boys". "Black boys in tight blue jeans/is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?/Black boys in tight blue jeans/Are you America's nightmare or America's dream". Not only does the song challenge the stereotypes that white people have about African American men, especially young men, it also challenges the young men in question. She says as an African American woman I love you, but I worry about and am afraid for you. She questions the gangsta-rap identity, the macho bullshit and the emphasis on material goods that accompanies it, "Don't be blinded by the bling" she admonishes at one point.

This song typifies Hendryx's approach to her material on the whole disc. She's not afraid to ask the questions most of us think but never speak out loud. She's looking around at the world we all live in and doesn't just shake her head, but finds a way to articulate in song many of the things troubling all of us. Even better is how she doesn't ignore the music for the message. Each song is as carefully crafted musically as it is lyrically with the sound ranging from old school R&B and Chicago soul, hard core funk to songs which fuse all those elements together with jazz and rock. Its an album of great music and great lyrics where neither outweighs the other and they compliment each other perfectly.

Hendryx is a veteran of the music wars and the lessons she has learned about music and presentation from her days with Labelle and performing with groups like The Talking Heads are all put to good use on this disc. On top of that, each song is timely and topical, articulating the issues facing Americans on a daily basis in such a manner that you can't help but listen to her. Not only is this a great disc musically, but any politician wanting to know what really matters to Americans these days would be well advised to give it a listen. Finding answers to the questions Hendryx raises will go a long way to ensuring yourself of victory in November.

(Article first published as Music Review: Nona Hendryx - Mutatis Mutandis on Blogcritics.)