Album Review: Local H – Hallelujah! I’m a Bum! [Slimstyle]
Scott Lucas is something of a film buff. In 2004, he titled Local H’s fifth studio album Whatever Happened to P.J. Soles?, which referenced the actress known for her roles in films like Carrie, Halloween, Rock and Roll High School and Stripes. His 2010 record with his “solo” project Scott Lucas and the Married Men was called George Lassos the Moon, a call back to It’s a Wonderful Life. Local H has been playing shows in Chicago on New Year’s Eve for over a decade now, and they always have themes to them with movie connotations. 2001 was their tribute to Stanley Kubrick, for example. Here are the intro videos the band showed before their themed NYE sets in 2010 and 2011, the former which pulls from 1930s musicals and the latter which is a mixture of a Rush concert film and Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. So yes, it should come as little surprise that Local H named their new long player Hallelujah! I’m a Bum!, inspired by the 1933 Al Jolson musical of the same name. The plot of that film essentially glamorizes and satirizes the hobo lifestyle during the Great Depression. Considering the current state of our economy and that we’ve got a big election coming up, these are the topics that Lucas and drummer Brian St. Clair have chosen to focus on for this record. Like almost every Local H album, the unifying theme makes it a concept record, complete with seamless song transitions and reprises of melodies and lyrics at various points throughout. Listening to the whole 60+ minute, 17 track affair from start to finish in one sitting is pretty important to grasp all that’s being done, however there are a handful of songs worth focusing on if you don’t have the time or fortitude to take on the whole enchilada each and every time.
The first half of Hallelujah! I’m a Bum! is largely focused on how we’ve been trained and indoctrinated to believe lies perpetuated by authority figures, designed to keep us calm, complacent and to hold us back from achieving our full potential. “Cold Manor” is about how our education system lets us down in that regard, feeding us with the wrong information when we’re kids so we don’t ever know better. “They Saved Reagan’s Brain” is an indictment of the GOP and Wall Street greed, attacking the idea of trickle down economics and using the aforementioned President’s own words against him in sound clips from his 1983 Evil Empire speech. The focus shifts to Chicago for “Blue Line” and “Another February,” both songs about trying to survive the city’s harsh winters when you don’t have a warm bed to sleep in or a car that will start. The former track actually uses both El train sounds and a clip of a homeless person riding the rails, explaining he does it to avoid freezing to death at night. There is a clear divide in this album via “Cold and Mannered,” which reprises “Cold Manor” in a slower, more resigned lo-fi fashion. The band originally said they were going to make this a double album, and while press releases along with the extensive track listing certainly promote that idea, if you buy it on CD you’re still getting one disc or if you buy the mp3s in bulk it won’t cost you more than any other single album. Call it Local H taking the politics of this to the next level by keeping costs down in a tough economy.
When the second half of Hallelujah! I’m a Bum! kicks off with the 75 second guitar-and-horns stomp of “Trash Fire Bummers,” things feel a little different. Okay, so the introduction of horns is something new for the band and make for a nice touch, but there’s also a shift in perspective that permeates the rest of the album. Now that we’ve learned how the government, politicians and the economy have led us astray in our formative years, it’s time to examine the further damage we’re unknowingly causing ourselves and others in the present because nobody told us otherwise. “Get it out of neutral/ Make yourself useful,” Lucas demands amid frenzied guitars and staccato horns on “Here Come Ol’ Laptop.” He’s trying to slap people out of their fevered delusions and back to reality. “Ruling Kind” gives a rather fair and calm assessment of how we need to get rid of politicians that don’t have our best interests at heart. But then the Republican party gets hit with more barbs on “Limit Your Change” and “Paddy Considine.” The first predominantly features sound bites from people like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin with their famous quotes like, “I like being able to fire people” and “How’s that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?” All of it is intended to expose their supposed hypocrisy, that in a quest to destroy President Obama they’re actually harming our country too. Following that is an indictment of the conspiracy theorist middle-aged white man, both believing and spreading misinformation about how the President is a “secret Muslim” or that only people of color are allowed to have a say in government.
If these sorts of topics sound a bit depressing and unpleasant to deal with, remember that the last Local H record 12 Angry Months was a very personal look at the crippling issues dealt with in the year following the end of a long-term relationship. Lucas and St. Clair also aren’t Japandroids, the similarly loud duo working hard to make rock and roll a celebration. The slog through this dark take on American living in 2012 is intended to get people angry about our failings and equally inspired to fight for actual change in our system. In other words, this is Local H’s pseudo take on Rage Against the Machine, and perhaps surprisingly, they wear that hat well. After looking inwards for so many records, it’s refreshing to hear them make music that truly speaks to millions of disenfranchised Americans. They become the voice of the middle class, deeply unsatisfied with both political parties (it’s worth noting there are a few criticisms aimed at President Obama on this album too) and frightened at the idea that we’ve been lost as a nation for so long we might never find our way back. Hallelujah! I’m a Bum! is an essential record to listen to as we prepare to vote this November, but its intentions and aspirations expand beyond that expiration date. Whether we hit another recession or not, America will likely remain in turmoil for many years to come. It’ll be good to have this around to remind us why and help vent some of that anger. Or you could completely ignore the lyrics and bang your head to some heavy garage rock for an hour. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.