It’s a two-man show, Street Sweeper Social Club (formerly just “Street Sweeper”), comprised of ex-Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave/Nightwatchman guitarist Tom Morello and Boots Riley of The Coup. That’s some serious pedigree right there — most folks know RAtM and Audioslave, and therefore know of Morello’s jaw-dropping musical talent. The Coup is somewhat less known in popular music, but I can assure you that they are one of the top hip hop acts, a politically charged, energetic and exciting group. After Rage dissolved and Morello went on to join the not-terribly-exciting Audioslave, I was automatically anxious about his future projects. No need. Riley and Morello are a brilliant combination, each able to play off each others strengths, with outstanding instrumental vision, righteous lyrics and a bracing sound.
Genre-wise, it’s no simple task to define it. Clearly it’s a rap/hip hop album, due to Riley’s presence. Morello, however, is always the x-factor. Instead of simply recreating the rap/rock amalgam that was Rage Against the Machine, Street Sweeper Social Club displays his ability to perfect compliment his vocalist. It’s actually rather remarkable. At no time is there any question that it’s Tom Morello, guitar’s mad scientist, playing guitar (and bass, for that matter). Yet the sound is something of a departure from his Rage days in many ways, and that’s in no small part due to his ability to adapt to his company. There are fewer of the higher notes and the intricate, screeching punishments he’d inflict on his guitars to accompany Zach De La Rocha’s screams. Instead, he opts for more low notes, mixing his bass and guitar to create a growling, hammering sound that compliments the rapid-fire, multi-layered vocals of Boots Riley. Riley’s vocal stylings are similarly impressive, a slick, cool-as-hell MC with a lot of swagger and sneer to him.
That swagger is part of the whole mood of the album, which is a curious (and exhilerating) fusion of incendiary political rabble rousing, and thumping party music — Riley said that the disenfranchised will “need something to listen to on their iPod’s while storming Wall Street.” I’ll tell you, they capture that mood perfectly. Right off the bat, with the opening anthem “Fight! Smash! Win!” they plow right into the meat of it, with a dizzying guitar from Morello and Riley’s raucous vocals, demanding that the listener drop everything and get the revolution/party rolling. With clever lyrics like “If you got a blacklist, I wanna be on it / If you gon’ attack this, then we need to run it / If you see my hood, man, you might call it ghetto / politicians are puppets y’all, let’s get Geppetto!” it’s a fast-moving foot-stomper of a song.
Everything takes off at breakneck speed from there. They seem to be slowing it down on the second track, “100 Little Curses,” but that’s a facade. The themes of revolution and taking on the man (whoever that is these days) continue, with seemingly immature, yet resonant lyrics (“May your Ferrari break down, may your chauffeur get get high / and smash up yo’ stretch Rolls up on Rodeo Drive / off the breaking backs of others where you got all your bucks / ‘til we get the revolution I just hope your life sucks”). It’s nothing more than a track wishing bad luck on the rich and famous, and it works. “The Squeeze” features drumming that’ll throw you off guard (provided by the surreally talented New Orleans native and Galactic founder Stanton Moore), and Morello sticks with it throughout, while Riley’s populist lyrics and call to arms brings it all together.
There isn’t much to criticize, honestly. The themes and ideologies and the sound are consistent throughout the album — if you downloaded the NIN|JA tour sampler provided by Trent Reznor for the NIN/Janes Addiction tour that featured them, you heard what the general idea is. But it’s all so well-executed, creating a sonic riot, a fists-in-the-air, kick-your-master-down-the-stairs party sound that I’ve been hooked on since it’s release. Perhaps my favorite track is “Promenade,” where a funky, growling bassline rolls through bouncing drumbeats and a surprisingly poppy sound that disguises the hard-hitting, radical lyrics.
In the end, there are supergroups and there are supergroups. I don’t know if Street Sweeper Social Club qualifies as one — an avant garde guitarist pairing up with a rough-edged, somewhat obscure hip hop MC makes that a difficult call. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, because Street Sweeper Social Club is a bold, brash, and thoroughly satisfying album. That’s super enough for me.
TK writes about music for Pajiba. He likes dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.