The first full studio album released by British folk-punk band The Levellers.
Sleeve artwork attributed to bass player Jeremy Cunningham with photography by Steve Gullick.
On first listen the album appears to be quite an eclectic mix of punk, folk, ballad, rock, socio-aware and political songs. Seemingly built around the tried and tested formula of songs featuring the acoustic guitar, melodic, rousing and immensly singalong vocals. This bare bones often finds itself punctuated by foot-tapping, angry and sometime haunting violin work, good solid bass and percussion and the banjo, harmonica and mandolin get thrown into the mix, for good measure.
Although recorded at the Locos studios in Wales, the album has a very vibrant "live" feel. A few mistakes occur on individual tracks and they have remained on the final cut. I like this a lot, the whole thing has the feeling of young musicians, talented musicians at that, letting loose as freely and easily as they would in front of an actual audience. It doesn't feel too polished, it feels energetic... very energetic.
Comparing the band to others is easy. The album has much of that folk-punk feel that was abundant in the Brit music scene in the late eighties/early nineties. The Waterboys, New Model Army, The Oyster Band all enjoyed, to one extent or another, playing in the mode emulated on A Weapon Called the Word. Lyrically and vocally shades of The Clash - London Calling immediatly spring to mind, maybe not as intense, but certainly sharing the same underlying passion on occasion.
The important bit (the songs) -
World Freak Show
I'm a fan of The Levellers, have been for most of my adult life. Even objectlively tho', I have to say that this is a stunning opening track for a debut album. The song breaks in with foot tapping drums and gentle, almost soothing violin work. Lyrically the song begins with retrospection, of the world, society and our place in it. It's interesting, gently probing and asking the listener to think about how much (or indeed, how little) the world has really changed in the last coupla hundred years or so. The song grows in intensity as it progresses. Gentle violin work becomes more pronounced as the initial acoustic feel of the song becomes overtaken by electric, rock-style, guitars and the singers break into a stuccato/rap, focusing on issues they feel important to their world at the time (today, it feels a little naive, although still works quite well). From the first song we can feel that these are guys with something to say, luckily, they seem to have the talent to say it and to say it well. A song that was written almost twenty years ago, that feels just as relevant today.
This track starts with a very Eastern European folk music feel. A simple rythm, violin and punctuated with harmonica. The vocals start with an immense amount of feelgood factor. A song of friendship and support, a song that almost promises to remove much of the alienation we all feel at one time or another. Initially it feels like a ballad but the band once again take the song on a dark twist as we heard in World Freak Show. The singer reminds us that we are not all a beautiful snowflake, we are all very different and he sings of those of us who have drifted from the norm, demanding that we look to them, and don't just drop them on a whim. The world can be changed, but to be changed you must include the world as a whole, not just a fight to protect those parts we feel suit us best. At the end the song once more reasuringly returns to the feelgood mood of the opening verse, reminding us that things may be bad, but not that bed. A beautiful song, superbly rendered.
A very simplistic song this one. It tells of the old punk dream of leaving the ratrace and monotony behind, holding a promise of the happines you'll find there and reasurance that it is possible. We get to hear the bass player show a little of his flair and musically it is quite rousing. Far from being my favourite track on the album, the songwriting being very simplistic, it doesn't make me reach for the skip button either
Together All the Way
The first pure ballad on the album. This song feels to be a natrual progression from Carry Me. Musically it carries a nice melody, quite soothing but still lively enough to hold the interest the listener without becoming monotonous or overly intrusive. Lyrically it invites us to spend time in retrospection, intropection and refind childhood passion for life. The singer asks us turn our backs on religion and the divine and instead look to humanity, who, if they work together can bring about changes in the world the band see as their ideal worldview. A song that will leave you smiling as a half forgotten memory emerges.
Barrel of a Gun
So, you want to play a song about injustice and the futility of law through brutality? However, you are aware that your songwriting skills may not be up to the task. What do you do? Simple. You grab accoustic guitars and sing it with as much passion as you can muster and that's exactly what they do. This follows the tradition of the protest song, it ain't no John Lennon or Bob Dylan but it is thrashed out (literally, dunno how they got through it with a single guitar string intact) and well sung... so it works. You won't hear this sang at anti-war rallies etc, lyrically it is sometimes cringingly simplistic. But, it works. An inspirational tune, becoming more inspirational as the Guiness-to-song ratio increases.
Violins. I've heard a lot of violins. Classical, pop, even Metallica torturing them on some kinda odd concept album. I've never heard anything like the violin used in the context of this song though, it's breathtaking. The second ballad on the album tackles, in a broad way, environmental issues. This song goes through three distinctive time-signature changes. It contains eerie, haunting violin playing and good solid rock electric guitar work. At the same time the lyrics are delivered beautifully, even mournfully. This is a staggering song, quite a move away from the earlier tracks on the album. It's beautiful.
(No, I don't know wot the initial backwards monologue is... I stopped playing records backwards when I quit dropping acid ;) )
I Have No Answers
How do you insight change? Simple, you start asking questions. The Levellers know this and sing about it wholeheartedly here, challenging the listener to provide answers to political problems of the day. The singer demands answers from both us and those who are in power. Musically it's a real stomper, upbeat, vibrant with a simplistic chorus which gets trapped in the mind. Nothing overly flash (which is welcomed after the complexity of Three Friends)... a simple song that is delivered well.
So far the album has contained a lot of frustration at the world and a call for change. This track changes the mood quite dramatically. Another ballad, it shifts the mood from angry optimism to defeat. Driven by violin and accoustic guitar the song tells the tale of a man who has become disillusioned at the lack of change in his world, and admits defeat. Sang with skill and maturity that then belied the singer's years, this is a moving track, subtle and melacholy.
After the almost resignation of No Change the band move the album back up a gear, they still have things to say and the previous song wasn't them throwing in the towel. Here they challenge apathy, or blind faith, warning the listener against indifference and the sheep-herd culture. Musically they have cut back on the violin here a little, although it is still audibly present. No huge surprises, a good rythm and melody to carry a very lyrics based song.
The Ballad of Robbie Jones
Innocent, naive and kitchy. An anti-war song with a stupid subject matter (the Falklands Conflict). Ill thought out and not very well exectuted (doen't help that the then singer of the band had a speech impediment). My least favourite track, it sounds like a dozen lads having an improptu jam session at the local pub, which is probably how it started, and where it should have remained. Not terrible, but nothing you won't hear at your local folk club.
England My Home
This is it. There has been an underlying mood of desperation and frustration at the world around them through the whole album, here it comes bubbling to the top. The electric guitars are dusted off, the Marshall amps cranked up a few notches and they let go. Singing to England herself, of their disapointment and hopes. An immensly singlalong toable song... the one when you hear it played live will make you clamber onto the shoulders of the person in front of you and sing wholeheartedly back to the band. The song that seperates The Levellers from could-be folk rockers to full fledged memebers of the genre. Brilliant.
What You Know
Good violin, amazing mandolin and blazing drums. A return to the old punk message of Do It Yourself, or, more specifically, make do with who you are and what you know. A lively and rombustious end to the album. 4:03 of pure levelly goodness.
This copy of the album, released in 1996, contains three bonus tracks Social Insecurity, Cardboard Box City (live at the Mean Fiddler, London) and a remix of Three Friends by Duncan Chace and Keith Sherry. Which I won't review here, because every album should contain some surprises.
Produced (and occasional guitar) by Phil Tennant
Engineered by Tim Lewis
Available on Universal Music Company. Cat. No. 159397-2LC07340