And perhaps best of all, the band comes complete with a ready-made "hook": its decidedly libertarian political slant, a jarring anomaly in the largely liberal music world. On first listen, Burkett's lyrics display a passing debt to the self-determination treatises of classic Rush (sample lyric: "I do what I've been taught/Say everything is fine"). But while Burkett and guitarist Toma Oliver acknowledge a thematic similarity to Rush drummer Neil Peart's "just do it" philosophy, they're more ardent followers of a far different radio presence, albeit one with a similar first name: syndicated WSB talk show staple Neal Boortz.
"We love our families, we go to our jobs, and we do consider politics to be part of who we are and what we stand for," Burkett says, exhibiting the kind of easygoing, regular-Joe temperament on which the talk-radio gabbers of the world have staked their careers. "Having Neal Boortz in your hometown makes it a whole lot easier to have access to information you wouldn't otherwise have access to."
Adds Oliver, "I think definitely, politics is important in the era we live in nowadays. We're not the Rage Against the Machine for the Libertarian Party, but the philosophy of the Libertarians -- your responsibility for yourself and for your life -- those ideas do come through."
They certainly do, as evinced on the stirring "Libertarian," the disc's tightest number. Over a precise metal progression, Burkett opens with an ironic "Let's make the government bigger/So they can pull the trigger" before launching into a chorus that lambastes a supposedly common liberal viewpoint: "I never had a thought/It never crossed my mind/I want everything/Without working for anything."
Strong words, certainly, but the opposition doesn't come away from Burkett's writing unscathed. The song "Newsflash" chides, "Democrat Republicans/Liberal conservatives" and delivers the stinging offhanded insult, "useless as Republicans."
But Burkett isn't out for GOP blood, necessarily. "I'm catching a lot of flak for that lyric," he says. "'Newsflash' is about one of the first stories I ever heard Neal Boortz talking about -- this case in Tennessee where they were drug testing students. Why don't you test kids for alcohol, then, if you really want to know what's going on? I don't know many high-school heroin users. We've got legalized tobacco, legalized alcoholics driving around smashing into each other, and people are stressed out about marijuana. I was saying that [Republicans] were useless in that time frame that the song was written. The Republicans were really laying down for the Democrats and getting totally run over. That's what I was saying. Not 'the Republican Party is a useless piece of shit.'"
In fact, he says, these days he's much more pleased with the GOP -- and with Georgia voters -- for November's history-making Republican victories. "They're finally standing up for themselves now. I'm so proud of them."
All of which is well and good, if a bit strange. If there's room on the traditionally liberal mainstream airwaves for the proselytizing likes of Creed and P.O.D., why not a wave of libertarian rockers? But as Oliver is quick to point out, for all its outspoken views, S.L.A.M. has no desire to become inextricably associated with a particular party or movement. In fact, most of the members aren't strict party-line voters.
"Our drummer Chris [Langley] is the only one who's actually a registered Libertarian," he says. "And our other guitar player [Casey Kline] has a total liberal bias. When you make people aware of how much power they have as an individual, that's where the Libertarian thing comes into it for us. You're the individual, the largest minority in the world -- let's protect your rights."
While both musicians downplay the political content, it's hard to argue with the underlying sentiments. Who really argues against the idea of people taking more personal responsibility for their lives?
If there's a problem with S.L.A.M.'s attempt at enlightenment, it's not in the band's philosophy, but rather in the way the members have chosen to express it. S.L.A.M.'s particular brand of modern rock is competent, kinetic and accessible, and it fits right in alongside the current crop of modern rockers. If anything, it fits in too well -- the disc's glossy finish, while professional, is polished to the point of lyrical distraction. It's difficult to completely take in Burkett's energetic messaging while being bombarded with the maelstrom of swirling guitars and muscular rhythms.
In a way, Oliver's statement that S.L.A.M. isn't Rage Against the Machine for Libertarians is right on the money: Where Rage, like Public Enemy, wielded a musical style as blunt as its lyricism, S.L.A.M.'s medicinal self-reliance message is coated in a sugary pill of familiar rock riffs, buffed to a heavy-rotation luster, the lyrics swimming in and out of legibility.
The increasingly generic sound of modern rock -- evidenced by the soundalike stylings of Nickelback, Creed, Puddle of Mudd, etc. -- is a distinctly ironic and unsuitable match for a band so passionate about themes of individualism. For all its prog-rock excesses, Rush, at least, was smart enough to match its Ayn Rand-inspired anthems with angular, amorphous rock that constantly kept the brain engaged with left-field time signatures and intricate arrangements. And the best "message" acts -- Rage, the Clash, the MC5, Bruce Springsteen, U2 -- have always placed a premium on sporting an appropriately singular sound.
By comparison, the comfortingly familiar brace of hard-rock guitars (aided by Burkett's occasionally opaque lyricism) dilutes the band's polemics to the level of friendly background chatter, rendering a song like "Newsflash" no more effective a commentary than Papa Roach's lowest- common-denominator anthem "Broken Home," or any mainstream country "spousal abuse is bad" ballad.
None of which would matter all that much if our airwaves weren't currently so chillingly devoid of any substantive messages. Despite the unusually dangerous times we live in, pop music's most familiar firebrands have largely taken a sabbatical: Rage's three instrumentalists have traded their incendiary rhetoric for the riff-rock comfort food of Audioslave; U2 has moved from "Sunday Bloody Sunday" to "Beautiful Day"; and Bruce Springsteen's The Rising is more concerned with sadness and healing after Sept. 11 than with asking what the hell happened.
Still, S.L.A.M. hopes that, even if its familiar sound eclipses its potential impact, there's a lesson to be learned just in the group's name. It's a moniker the band recently took to heart, rebounding from the loss of its bassist -- what Oliver refers to as the band's "Spinal Tap moment" -- in time to play its third CMJ showcase this fall, with the aid of Simple Sick Device bassist Tony Higbee. And in an era where we have to take our encouragement where we can get it, Something Left After Misfortune does at least offer an idea worth holding onto.
"The bass player issue, our name l it really all does tie into the whole thing about being responsible for yourself and being an individual," Oliver says. "Realizing that you've got to continue, you can still prevail. There is always something left after misfortune."
Drivin N' Cryin.
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