Ball of Wax 38 Songs of Protest: Scott Pinkmountain and the Golden Bolts – “Baghdad Blues”

Scott Pinkmountain makes his Ball of Wax debut, backed by up by the muscular Golden Bolts rhythm section, with this beautifully discordant and dissociative tune. The performance is blistering, keening, heart-piercing: Scott’s voice and guitar scream and cry in counterpoint, and the bass and drums plod along with him slowly, methodically, like a dying thunderstorm, as he sings lyrics composed mostly of mundane first-world slices of life: “I bought a new pair of shoes today . . . they’re cut in the modern style. . . . I ran into an old friend / he said his mortgage payments ache . . .” The title and musical setting let the listener in on the fact that this song isn’t about his shoes, or his friend’s mortgage, of course, and once in a while the specter of what he’s not singing about – what most of us aren’t thinking about – hovers in the periphery with lines like “I know there’s something in the back of my mind / I’m really busy though, I haven’t got the time to find” before the chorus brings us back to blissful unawareness: “Anyway, it’s a beautiful day / Where did I . . . what was I starting to say?” It’s not so much a protest against whichever war in Iraq we might happen to be fighting at any given time, it’s a protest against the apathy and solipsism that most of us are guilty of much of the time, and which makes things like perpetual war (and anything else we might choose to protest) possible, if not inevitable.

Or maybe it’s just a killer rock tune, and a great way to close out this particular compilation. Anyway, it’s such a beautiful day . . .

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Ball of Wax 38 Songs of Protest: Levi Fuller & the Library – “I Won’t Go to Mexico”

Levi and his Library declare “I Won’t Go to Mexico,” a song set in the Mexican-American War and told from the perspective of a defiant potential conscript who decries “I have no wish to participate / in such glorious butcheries” and “As long as I can work, beg, or go to the poorhouse / I won’t go to Mexico.” As with much of Levi and the Library’s recent music, “I Won’t Go to Mexico” starts off with gentle, looping strumming then builds to a rumbling rock snowball in the style of Dinosaur Jr. or Built to Spill.

Levi locates a seemingly modern perspective on unjust war and colonialism in the conscience of a young man in Massachusetts who, over 160 years ago, wrote an anonymous letter to the newspaper in Cambridge that’s carefully mined for the lyrics to “I Won’t Go to Mexico.” That young man also wrote “Human butchery has had its day. . . . And the time is rapidly approaching when the professional soldier will be placed on the same level as a bandit, the Bedouin, and the Thug.” While an admirable sentiment, one can imagine the horror he felt at the bloodshed of the US Civil War and, for his sake, hope that he never lived to see the mechanical menace and death delivered by the Twentieth Century in the first World War. With “I Won’t Go to Mexico,” Levi taps deep into the vein of American pacifism to craft a protest song that really stands out in his lengthy body of work.

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Ball of Wax 38 Songs of Protest: Emory Liu – “Plastic Future”

Veteran Ball of Wax contributor Emory Liu offers up “Plastic Future” for volume 38, a song protesting how mass commercialization alienates and anesthetizes people. The song opens with the lines “this plastic future / a fixture of vultures / keeping your head in the sand” and “opinions are bottled / to sell you some product” and continues along that line of social critique. Arranged in the style of intricate, turn of the century indie rock a la Pinback, Strictly Ballroom, and young Modest Mouse at their most contemplative, “Plastic Future” balances distorted guitar flare-ups and quieter passages marked by strings atop some pretty darn astonishing drumming. If you’re looking for where your yearning for social protest intersects with your love for brainy indie rock, look no further than “Plastic Future.”

Be sure to see Emory perform “Plastic Future” and other songs this Friday at the Ball of Wax 38 release show at Conor Byrne.

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Ball of Wax 38 Songs of Protest: Virgin of the Birds – “In 1970, Across Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo Broke the Black Panther Party”

Jon Rooney of Virgin of the Birds (and also, it must be said, of this here blog) strips down to his one-man low-fi roots for this tune, with a languid bed of guitar, bass, keys, and tambourine backing up a historical tour of protest and conflict told in Rooney’s signature “nasal baritone” (to use a phrase from one of his other songs). We begin, as the title suggests, in Philadelphia in 1970 with Frank Rizzo and the Black Panthers and end, somewhat surprisingly, in 417 with the beef between Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius on free will vs. predestination (yes, I had to look it up). The second verse, still in Philadelphia, provides one of the more poignant moments I can remember from a Virgin of the Birds song: young Jon Rooney in his school uniform witnessing the aftermath of the 1985 conflict between MOVE and the Philadelphia police (yes, I had to look that one up too). I always love to get a little slice of how Jon sees the world, and this tune provides a heaping helping of his unique brand of perception and juxtaposition.

Get yourself a heaping helping of the live, full-band Virgin of the Birds experience at the Ball of Wax 38 release show this Friday at Conor Byrne.

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Ball of Wax 38 Songs of Protest: Robert Deeble – “Not on Your Team”

Robert Deeble‘s “Not on Your Team” is a stately, elegant pop song in protest of the Mars Hill church, an emo evangelist institution that’s enjoyed more than it’s share of bad press. As a Papist transcendentalist myself, I find it hard to understand either the theological basis or the popular appeal of Rollins-esque Bible bros, but then again my people are still adjusting to the Jungian modernity of the acoustic guitar Mass unleashed in the wake of Vatican II. Nevertheless, Deeble does a beautiful job with “Not on Your Team,” which takes apart the Mars Hill facade with the quiet, secure disobedience of lines like “I am not as you seem / I am not on your team.” The song takes the perspective of a believer turning away from the hypocrisy and arrogance of Mars Hill, abandoning the institution while maintaining faith. Musically, the song sits in that pretty, serene place of mid-period Wilco’s best ballads, proving that protest songs can calmly use a scalpel as effectively (or more so) than an explosion.

Robert Deeble will be closing out the night at Conor Byrne on Friday, October 17th for the Ball of Wax 38 release show.

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Ball of Wax 38 Songs of Protest: Colin Ernst – “Assholes and Fuckheads”

What would you do if two of your close friends and artistic collaborators were murdered in broad daylight by a gun-wielding maniac? For most of us, fortunately, this is a hypothetical (and horrifying) question, but Colin Ernst and many others in Seattle’s creative community were faced with this very situation two years ago when four people were gunned down in Cafe Racer, including Colin’s friends and Circus Contraption collaborators Joe Albanese (aka Dexter Mantooth) and Drew Keriakedes (aka Shmootzi the Clod). I don’t know what I would do in this situation, but Colin did what Drew and Joe would most likely have done, and channeled his feelings into an angry, filthy, hilarious song, which he is very generously sharing with us now. Gun violence is a huge problem in our country, but as long as our political system is completely paralyzed on the issue, all we can really do (apart from supporting and voting for I-594 here in Washington) is to remind each other and ourselves not to be assholes or fuckheads. Listen to this song every day and see if it doesn’t make you less of an asshole.

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Ball of Wax 38 Songs of Protest: Mindie Lind – “For Palestine”

I don’t think Mindie knows this, but this song is part of the reason I decided to make Ball of Wax 38 a collection of protest songs. It was one of those particularly awful weeks this summer, when the violence in Palestine and in Ferguson was shocking the world and it seemed like everything was going to get a lot worse before it gets much better (OK, it still mostly seems like that). Mindie Lind (of Inly), feeling as sad and helpless as the rest of us, reached into her soul, pulled forth this mournful meditation, and shared it on Bandcamp. A week or so later I decided on this theme for Volume 38 and hoped she would let me put this song on it. Lo and behold, hers was one of the first submissions I received! I don’t know what good this song – or any of the songs on this collection – will do, but sometimes you just have to do something, and when the result is as beautiful as “For Palestine,” you know that you’ve done a hell of a lot better than throwing more bombs or guns at the problem.

I’m very much looking forward to hearing Mindie play this tune and more on Conor Byrne’s trusty old upright piano on Friday the 17th at the Ball of Wax 38 release show.

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Ball of Wax 38 Songs of Protest: The Harvey Girls – “Cool, Free Water”

Portland’s the Harvey Girls make their first contribution to Ball of Wax with “Cool, Free Water,” a noisy, scratchy collage of sound that declares the seemingly self-evident human right for free access to clean drinking water. Vocal soundbites decrying the notion of privatizing water supplies and the humanitarian imperative for free water drift in and out above a burbling cauldron of percussion, bass, phase-y electric guitar and a grab bag of other instruments. These soundbites never give way to proper lead vocals, but I think that’s part of the point of the song – we shouldn’t need some Apollonian ego to declare that people need water, it’s a shared idea. We all know that “corporations are not people” and water is a right, right? “Cool, Free Water” is a well-formed protest against ideas around public goods that could lead to an awfully dystopian tomorrow.  Pre-emptive protest is the best protest – thanks Harvey Girls.

The Harvey Girls will join us at Conor Byrne on Friday, October 17th for the Ball of Wax 38 release show.

These are not the Harvey Girls – this is a vision of Dystopia. And Tina Turner.

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Ball of Wax 38 Songs of Protest: Julia Massey & the Five Finger Discount – “Nuclear Disarmament”

Singer-songwriter Julia Massey and her gang have been making delightful noises around Seattle for at least a few years now, but this is their first appearance on Ball of Wax. I’m so glad they had a protest song all ready to go! “Nuclear Disarmament,” which will appear on their forthcoming album A.L.I.T.E., is perhaps the most blissfully sweet treatise you’ll ever hear on the terror of living in a world filled with weapons that could destroy the planet many times over. Synthesized melodic percussion and delayed-drenched guitar harmonics and volume swells give Massey’s wide-ranging alto voice a musical backdrop that’s pretty, yet shot through with tension.

Most of the lyrics get lost in the mix (at least to my poor ears), with occasional phrases jumping out, such as “in the hope that trees will outlive me” and “forgive us for the things we’ve done,” but the title alone does a fair amount of work on the protest front. Nuclear disarmament is one of those issues that seems to have sunk below the surface for most people, yet is still incredibly important, still something worth fighting for. Hearing a pretty pop song with the title “Nuclear Disarmament” at least brings it into people’s minds as a thing to care about or hope for, which is, unfortunately, an achievement these days.

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Ball of Wax 38 Songs of Protest: The Foghorns – “Sons and Daughters of the Molly Maguires”

Ball of Wax mainstays the Foghorns gift us all another gem with “Sons and Daughters of the Molly Maguires,” a seething, smart foray into our largely-forgotten history of labor strife and largely-suppressed tradition of class struggle. The Foghorns do righteous anger really well, and “Sons and Daughters of the Molly Maguires” is an outstanding bookend to “Ain’t I A Man.”  Lead Foghorn Bart Cameron sings “when my grandma served your grandma / she was told to wear gloves” with the thrilling, bold-faced scorn that the line deserves. When the chorus of “we ain’t no band of brothers / got no Governors for hire / we’re the angry sons and daughters of the Molly Maguires,” the song blooms into a joyous threat. “Sons and Daughters of the Molly Maguires” is a welcomed reminder of a strain of grounded, resilient, working-class resistance that the US has seemed to lose track of. Why? How? Like all regrettable cultural inheritance, I (probably unfairly) blame the Baby Boomers.

Note: this is not the Foghorns

Recorded at Foghorn and Ball of Waxer Colin J Nelson’s Her Car studio in Fremont, “Sons and Daughters of the Molly Maguires” boasts a lean, mean arrangement befitting the song’s content and tone. Play this song loudly:

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