If anything is truly lacking in the grand smorgasbord of today’s indie rock, it’s political consciousness. Sure, you might find a Godspeed You! Black Emperor or two if you look hard, but to a scene concerned primarily with self-reference, irony, pastiche and the avant-garde, the sincerity required to speak openly about an increasingly unstable world order is, to many, absolute anathema. Kudos, then, to New York City’s Radio 4 for making such dialogue palatable on 2002’s excellent Gotham!, a delicious mix of Clash-guitar, furious bass lines, and dub atmospherics that kept your Converses tapping.
Too bad Stealing of a Nation (a play on Jacob Miller’s 1979 reggae hit “Healing of the Nation”) transforms much of that energy into glossy fluff. Where Gotham! anticipated the indie dance-craze brought on by bands like Hot Hot Heat and Franz Ferdinand, this full-length is overburdened with Max Heyes’s (Doves, Primal Scream) pristine production, pushing dime-a-dozen house beats to the forefront and leveling Radio 4’s tenement-house New York populism in the process. Tunes like opener “Party Crashers” and “State of Alert” strive desperately for that galvanizing moment when the most basic groove meets the most primal political complaint and politicizes them both. Instead, neither the messages nor the beats have the substance to do either justice.
Not surprisingly, then, the rare track that does work chooses not to walk that thin line between danceablity and political outrage. The album’s centerpiece, “Nation,” is an inspiring piece of post-September 11 paranoia, minus the Paul Oakenfold tribute. A line like “Come fall they’ll change every single quote” truly frightens couched in Anthony Roman’s outraged vocals, his slinky Caribbean bass, and Tommy Williams’s apocalyptic guitar drone. And the surprising “Absolute Affirmation,” one of the few tracks that doesn’t revolve around bumper-sticker Noam Chomsky quotes, is a fist-pumping slice of Brit-pop via New Order set to soaring ’80s synths and acoustic guitar.
I have sympathy for Radio 4’s politics, even their musical vision, and when you see them hand out tambourines to the audience at their shows, you know their populism isn’t a front. But their major-label debut doesn’t deliver on the Molotov-cocktail promise. When you’ve got roller-rink techno beats on the one hand and trite leftist statements like “know the past is suspect, the future hides from the public” on the other, it’s just hard to take Stealing of a Nation very seriously.