Social Change Pop That Rocks
For too long music has been absent from social change on a national level the way it was during the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 60’s and 70’s. Protest music hasn’t disappeared, and some of the artists of that era are still recording and touring. But, outside of a small handful of artists like Bruce Springsteen or Pink, social change themes in modern pop and rock are rare and usually found in local, indie bands.
War Poets is an exception to that. Founder Rex Haberman and contributing songwriter and musical director Jenny Case have built an impressive national presence for songs that tell stories to make change. The video for band’s hit single, “Close Enough,” from their debut album Dulce et Decorum Est, has had over 250,000 YouTube views. Their follow-up video for the single, “Will You Be There” saw over 45,000 views and rising. They are spun by radio stations across the country in both AAA and college radio. They have played at SXSW among other festivals and attracted the attention and the talent of iconic producers like Grammy winners Kevin Bowe and Joe Baldridge.
Their latest album American Police State is a social change tool that rocks with hooks and beats. Regardless of your political persuasion, you will enjoy the music they play and think about what they say. The five songs on this EP touch on gun violence (the title refers to citizens killing each other, not the police), income inequality, abuse of Native Americans, the loss of trust in our society, the Newtown massacre and schizophrenia. But it is all done within highly listenable pop and rock. Rex and Jenny know how to entice people to listen beyond the hooks while they listen to the hooks.
The EP opens with “A Better Place” sung from the point of view of a middle aged man sitting on the curb watching a younger man drive by in his BMW. The man on the curb did everything right - pays his child support, loves his family, worked hard; but life tripped him up and he is in a place so many Americans find themselves, broke, unemployed and desperate. Big rhythm guitars gives the song a country pop feel moved along with a steady snare drum and bass tempo as Rex sings the chorus,I look to my left, I look to my right/I close my eyes and see a better place/Take me there, baby, to a better place. You find yourself humming those words long after the song has ended.
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As “A Better Place” winds down, War Poets shifts to hard, hard rock with “Closing In”. Rex wails The man searches for a way to creep and crawl inside my head /As the night gets darker, I’m looking for a way to get out of here/I see all my guns, they’re lined up against the wall. You feel the desperation that leads to violence. The music underscores the mental crises with a wall of electric guitar riffs, urgent keyboard notes like sirens and hard pounding drums that create the sonic equivalent of slow panic. There is no escape; but there are guns.
Rex ratchets up the message with “8:05 On a Saturday Night”, a musical creep into the mind the of the killer at the Newtown school shooting but in a pleasant pop format, almost as if the band was describing the lead up to a date. No clouds, only bullets fly, today’s the day/Evil eyes in his video game/It’s 8:05 on a Saturday night/Reality is slipping away. The effect is spooky, if you listen close, pleasing if you don’t. But when you do , beneath the slow rock and the background singers you hear the subtly layered track of voices of anger that break through into a rap as the killer comes closer to the moment of killing. You are in the head of that boy, of every boy or girl who decides to kill and its angry. Then the pop comes back with the slow beat and the melodic guitar and Rex singing gently.
“Where has Love Gone” resonated with me the most,. A strong rock tune with solid drumming and bass that leads the band’s story telling punctuated by killer guitar solos and fast-paced bass riffs. The music brings the story to a peak supported by accelerated percussion and red hot electric guitar as Rex growls Where is love lost in this land torn by hatred?/Why does my neighbor need a gun to be safe?. We learned the answer when Renisha McBride was shot on the front porch of a man she was asking for help. Fear, the gun lobby, exploitive media – they all contribute and they all contribute to the answer sought in this song.
The EP wraps with “Red Lake”, story of the Native Americans in Red Lake Minnesota who saw their children taken from then at the beginning of the 19th century by white people who locked them in a boarding school to turn them white. The music is solid rock but in Rex’s lyrics you can hear the cries of the children who want to escape and be who they are. Although the events are over a hundred years old, Rex’s delivery brings an urgency to the story, supported by big rhythm guitars, pressing bass lines and screaming electric guitar solos.
The EP is getting radio spins around the country, a testament to the quality of the music as well as to an audience hungry for tunes with meaning. War Poets has found the key to selling protest songs: just make great music, which is what they do.
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