With Private Revolution, one-man-pop-orchestra Karl Wallinger proved that his post-Waterboys soirée was a place to be. He recorded the album at home, singing playing guitar and using samples to create a refreshingly unique musical backdrop that probably owes more to the psychedelic-era Beatles than any one other source, yet never actually sounds like them. The music, in fact, serves like a kind of free-flowing pop soundtrack to Wallinger’s lyrics — a hybrid of ’60s hippie and ’80s new age ideas about ecology and self-knowledge. (Thankfully, they’re not as silly as that sounds.) Highlights include a terrific cover of Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do” and a cameo by Sinéad O’Connor. Leave your cynicism at the door and you may find yourself trading in your black leather jacket for love beads. In a word, groovy.
Goodbye Jumbo upped the ante; the Welshman’s three years in the studio were well-spent, yielding a pastiche of ’60s influences — mostly the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison — blended into a thoroughly contemporary mix that propels the lyrics of Wallinger’s ripping and heartfelt journey from disillusion to hope. He protests any sort of hippie or retro tag, but there’s no denying the paisley-tinged psychedelia-including pro-environment and peace-on-earth sloganeering of “Put the Message in the Box,” “Love Street” and “Thank You World,” as well as the percolating “Sympathy for the Devil” shuffle groove of the single “Way Down Now.” Sinéad O’Connor, Wire Train’s Jeff Trott and Waterboy Steve Wickham are among the handful of guests who help flesh out Wallinger’s mostly self-sufficient vision. (The Thank You World mini-album contains two mixes and a live version of the title track, a remix of the album’s “Is It Too Late” and five other tracks, all originals save for a rendition of John Lennon’s “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.”)
Bang! is more of a group project, with tourmates Chris Sharrock (ex-Icicle Works) and Dave Catlin-Birch signing on as full-fledged Party members. Ironically, in light of Wallinger’s newfound reliance on computer technology, the sound is a little softer, his worldview a tad darker (“Faith: you don’t need to believe it/Faith: ‘cos they’re just going to deceive you”), but Bang! is still a work of estimable craft and infectious melodicism that draws less baldly from Wallinger’s acknowledged influences. World Party’s sonic stew now includes funk (“What Is Love All About,” “Give It All Away,” “Radio Days”) and country (“Kingdom Come”). If Bang! isn’t as consistently stirring as either Private Revolution or Goodbye Jumbo, it does redefine the band’s expanding identity.
The ascendance of alt-rock radio in the 1990s should have made Wallinger a big star, but instead he — like far too many other deserving artists who’d paid their dues for years — was shoved aside by watered-down grunge. By the time Egyptology appeared, no one was paying attention to World Party anymore, which is a shame, since it’s another strong album of thoughtful, well-crafted and melodic pop. The lovely ballad “She’s the One” became something of a standard, thanks in no small part to Robbie Williams’ cover version, which became a monster hit in the UK. Egyptology is probably the most consistent World Party album: there are no obvious standout beyond “She’s the One,” but everything on it is good.
A 2000 aneurysm sidelined Wallinger for a long time, but did not dampen his spirit or end his career. On Dumbing Up, however, he lets his influences get the better of him. While World Party has always been something of a jalopy built from the parts of other vehicles, Wallinger has stayed firmly in the driver’s seat. But Dumbing Up sounds like the musical equivalent of Stephen King’s Christine, a vehicle with a mind of its own that makes the driver superfluous. “Another Thousand Years” wishes like hell it was on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. “Who Are You?” sounds like a missing track from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, while an imaginary Prince drops by to contribute “Here Comes the Future.” Then Dylan returns for “High Love” and “Santa Barbara.” None of this is to suggest that Dumbing Up is a bad album — far from it. It’s every bit as enjoyable as everything else Wallinger has ever recorded — the man is evidently incapable of recording anything less than damn good — but this time he seems content to ape his idols rather than put forward himself forward.