Protest music is always a dicey prospect. When it’s not boring, it’s often preachy and self-righteous. Enter former Jayhawk and Midwestern-rock legend Mark Olson, who challenges this notion, aided as usual by his crack roots outfit, the Creekdippers, and wife Victoria Williams—the wildest gospel-blues shouter ever to be mistaken for a folk singer.
Think of this as the Fahrenheit 9/11 of summer albums, with the Creekdippers taking on Michael Moore’s role as enraged Everyperson—and just as Moore consistently proves more entertaining than the average documentarian, Olson’s craftsmanship ensures that all these songs rise above the level of agitprop they attain on paper. Whether he’s slamming Bush (“Poor GW,” a memorably greasy blues), Rumsfeld (“End of the Highway, Rumsfeld,” with its lovely piano melody) or, um, Bush (“Portrait of a Sick America”), Olson reaches levels of songcraft that ensure the songs remain entertaining.
Well-made as it is, the album is hardly above criticism. “Senator Byrd Speech” has a deeply silly lyric, eulogizing Sen. Robert Byrd as a moral superhero simply because he opposed Gulf War II; it’s the kind of rant only Victoria Williams’ silvery voice could save from risibility. On “Portrait of a Sick America,” the most seemingly conflicted song here, Olson fantasizes about “stuffing the Sermon on the Mount” down Bush’s throat—a neatly self-canceling line, in that it reflects on the human tendency to turn even love into a weapon (the Sermon on the Mount, after all, prescribes turning the other cheek), while allowing Bush-haters a cheap laugh.
But this collection achieves balance on account of songs like the irenic “Walk With Them,” a breathtaking pop hymn to reconciliation: “We should go walk with them, and we should go talk with them / We should make it up with them, now is the time to get it right.” In these troubled times, it’s as soothing as “Let it Be.” Williams, meanwhile, sings the traditional “My Father Knows Foes” with spine-tingling ragged grace. As good as this album is, it’s unfortunate (though unsurprising) that Olson couldn’t secure wider distribution for it, releasing it instead on tiny Minnesota indie, Mercy Records.