Although derided as the pied pipers of the crusties (Britain’s raggletaggle hippie resurgents around the turn of the decade), Brighton’s self-reliant Levellers, named for a 17th century egalitarian movement, proffer an undeniably stirring mix of Celtic folk, punky rock and politically charged anthems. Not so much folk-rock as modern rock out of old-time folk, the Levellers give intimate music long consigned to the margins of the pop world a jolt of mass-appeal bigness without entirely sacrificing its essence.
“One Way,” a UK hit single that also serves as the opening track of Levelling the Land, heralds the freedom train by announcing “There’s only one way of life — and that’s your own.” Powered by rich, fiery arrangements of rocking (guitar, bass and drums) and acoustic (mandolin and violin) instruments that give a mostly English spin to the hybrid sound of the Pogues (or, alternately, inject honesty and a rock spine into the Waterboys), such sentiments ring as resonant echoes of an ageless cultural populism. The group’s weakness is letting its poetic agitprop go overboard (protesting the human cost of the Falklands War on Levelling the Land, “Another Man’s Cause” offers nothing that hadn’t already been covered far more eloquently by Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan a quarter-century earlier). But the Levellers often strike a match of memorable folk melodies and thoughtful intelligence. Objectionable on principle only to those allergic to positivist sincerity in their pop music, the Levellers — whoever their audience might be — isplay an enthusiasm and energy level wholly antithetical to slack hippie aesthetics.
Levelling the Land, the quintet’s first American release, follows the inspiring “One Way” with the rugged pioneer fantasy of “The Boatman,” a couple of rocking reels, several pungent slices of autobiography and the angry state-of-1991 report, “Sell Out.” Guitarist Mark Chadwick’s strong, direct voice and dramatic delivery make the catchy songs sound important even when they’re not; fiddler Jon Sevink saws away with the feverish abandon of a country traditionalist, leaving the responsibility for contemporary rock stylings primarily to drummer Charlie Heather and guitarist/vocalist Simon Friend.
Following a singles compilation (See Nothing, Hear Nothing, Do Something), the group made Levellers, a harder-rocking, less distinctive and personable album. The disastrous “This Garden” slaps didgeridoo onto dance rhythms and an attempted rap vocal; “The Player” has the bland pop sound of singer/songwriter rubbish. Although the songs concern similar current-events topics, the knee-jerk protest either falls flat or is inflated and demeaned with prosaic artistry to create cardboard characters like “Julie” (living in a council flat, a young woman is made redundant and rejected by social services) and “Dirty Davey” (persecuted by the police, a poor black squatter hangs himself in prison). Other than “100 Years of Solitude” (a swipe at the apathy of “This walkman generation/In search of sweet sedation”) and the scattershot “Broken Circle,” Levellers blows it.
Zeitgeist gets the group back on the right track, although the train now runs through some stylish and uneven environs. Prone to a glistening mainstream folk-rock sound (the galling “Hope St.” is truly one of Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London”), the band has to keep reminding itself to be righteous in sound and word. The result is an inconsistent album that waffles a little (make that a lot) but sidesteps lyrical potholes and comes across with enough pulse-quickening passion to nullify the occasional Stealers Wheel sheen. The merry jugband stomp of “Just the One” is just a grandstand play, but the sharpest rockers — “4.am,” “Leave This Town” and the catchy, Clash-quoting “Fantasy” (the first two supercharged with Sevink’s fiddle-on-fire solos) — are as potent as any in the band’s repertoire. For all the dismaying detours, the Levellers still know which way to glory.
For a mild antidote to the Levellers’ seriousness, try to find the snide 1992 novelty single, “Crusty Girl (Solstice Ritual Folksong),” by England’s parodic and pseudonymous Dishevellers — Pig, Frig, Stig, Wig, Dig and Slapper.