Wednesday, December 22, 2010

December 22: Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, "Arms Aloft"

Artist: Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros
Song: "Arms Aloft"
Album: Streetcore
Year: 2003

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While there is certainly something to be said for consistency and "riding" the musical wave from album to album, one can also make the case that taking time between recording can be equally as important to the creative process.  Though many bands made their name by pushing out an album every year, there are other groups that are able to step away for a few years, and then return with a fresh sound that is equally as impressive from year to year.  However, this idea of taking a break can also be essential if a well-known performer is attempting to reestablish themselves as a solo artist.  Though it was not exactly a planned set of events, it was perhaps the fact that there was more than a decade layoff between bands that enabled the late, great Joe Strummer to return with such a stunning new sound.  Having made his legend as the voice of punk rock whilst fronting "The Only Band That Mattered," one can easily make the case that after The Clash was disbanded in 1985, there was "no need" for Strummer to have to prove his talents elsewhere.  Yet after more than fifteen years of laying low, Strummer returned with his new band, The Mescaleros, and the sound he brought with this band can easily be seen as authentic to the punk rock ideals as one will find anywhere.  Though the three albums the band released are all worth owning, none can compare to the emotion and sound found on 2003's Streetcore, and everything that makes the band amazing, as well as proof that the spirit of punk was still alive and well, can be found in Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros anthem from that album, "Arms Aloft."

Released almost ten months to the day after Joe Strummer's sudden, tragic passing on December 22, 2002, Streetcore is a celebration of his musical brilliance, and the musicians with which he surrounded himself prove to be without question some of the most talented on the planet.  "Arms Aloft" opens with a simple, soft guitar progression from Strummer, Martin Slattery, and Scott Shields, and the song quickly drops into a full-force rock explosion that is far beyond that of anything else being released musically at the time.  The song has an edge and a sense of movement that embodies the spirit of punk rock, yet it is far more melodic than nearly anything else in Strummer's career.  The rhythm section of bassist Simon Stafford and drummer Luke Bullen complete the sound, and The Mescaleros move as a single unit in a way that is nothing short of extraordinary.  "Arms Aloft" has an amazingly full sound, and yet each instrument has its own space, making the song one of the most balanced ever.  It is the fact that the song has this balance, yet is able to switch the emotion and energy of the song so effortlessly that serves as a testament to the level of talent within The Mescaleros, and one can easily make the case that Strummer never sounded better.  There is a sense of urgency that runs underneath the entire song, and it is in this energy and mood that one can easily make the link to the punk sound, as well as Strummer's finest moments with The Clash.

Yet as amazing a backing band as one finds in The Mescaleros, the focus never moves far from the voice of Joe Strummer, and even after so many years out of the spotlight, he quickly proves to be just as captivating and inspirational as ever.  The raw, uncompromising sound of his voice is what defined him, as well as The Clash, and this aspect is still very present on "Arms Aloft," and one can make the case that he sounds more relaxed and more refreshed here than on any other recording.  Furthermore, the simple, somewhat rough way that his voice comes across makes this, like his other work, easy to relate to, and "Arms Aloft" is without question one of the most catchy and powerful songs he ever performed, with the chorus bordering on anthemic status.  Along with his "everyman" voice, the lyrics of Joe Strummer were always able to straddle the line between the deeply profound and invigorating, and "Arms Aloft" furthers this trend, with Strummer presenting some of the finest lyrics of his career.  Singing directly to the feeling of desperation and exhaustion at "life itself," Strummer reaches out to the listener when he sings, "...and just when you were thinking about slinkin’ down, I’m gonna pull you up – I’m gonna pull ya round..."  This is exactly what occurs though the song, as the music and vocals instantly raise the spirits of the listener, and it is this ability that defines the true impact and brilliance of Joe Strummer.  The way in which Strummer is able to convey the mood and energy of "that scene" even to those who have no idea about what he is speaking further supports how phenomenal a recording one finds here, and one can even make a few arguments about "which" city of Aberdeen he sings.  Regardless, the true power of music to pull people from even the lowest points is abundantly clear on "Arms Aloft," and it is Strummer's voice that is the key to the song becoming uplifting and unforgettable.

Though all of Streetcore can be seen as more musically complex than anything Joe Strummer did with The Clash, if one listens to the music and energy, it is clear that this is as much of a punk record as ever been released.  It is albums such as this that prove that punk rock is not about a look or a sound, it is about a spirit, and there has never been another performer that better represented that spirit than Joe Strummer.  Throughout what would be his final recordings, there is a vibrant, yet relaxed sound from Strummer, though his moving roar is never far away, and one can clearly hear the amount of fun he is having with The Mescaleros.  This places Strummer into a grouping with the likes of Muddy Waters and a number of other music legends whose final albums stand as the finest of their career.  Though his work with The Clash was unquestionably groundbreaking and some of the greatest music in history, with The Mescaleros, Strummer seems to achieve an entirely new level of musicianship, and his lyrics have an impact that is truly beyond words.  Perhaps it was due to his hiatus that he was able to completely reinvent himself, as musically, The Mescaleros are a far cry from the pulverizing sound of The Clash, yet it is due Streetcore that one can fully understand that regardless of the style, the spirit of the music is what really counts.  Bringing an extraordinary celebration of rock and roll with as much of an anthemic and moving quality as anything he achieved with The Clash, one can only stand in awe of the greatness found on Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros 2003 song, "Arms Aloft."

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