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Battle Hymns Compiles Top-notch Talent to Fight the Power

Photo of Battle Hymns Art

Battle Hymns

Count the alt-rock world among the many frustrated with Donald Trump and the alt-right invading the White House. Before the new president took office, rockers from bands like R.E.M., Sleater-Kinney, Bon Iver and more took to the studio to let out some angst. The result was Quasi's Battle Hymns, a protest record released digitally on inauguration day. The album also puts its money where its socially conscious mouth is. The cost is pay-what-you-will and proceeds are divided equally between Planned Parenthood, The ACLU, and (a climate change nonprofit), so listeners can feel good knowing their angry headbanging is charitable.

Picture of Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss

Quasi's Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss. Image Courtesy of Billions.

The first tracks, “We Won't Go Back” and “Save our Soul” are riot grrrl angry chants that set the tone of the album, and it’s empowering to see women at the forefront here. Rebecca Gates’ “NO DIVISION” starts off as a soft song of protest chants, but soon picks up enough to make listeners break out their air-guitars.

Matt McCaughan of Bon Iver lends his scratchy voice to the depressingly optimistic holiday song “Happy New Year (Prince Can’t Die Again).” It’s a darkly humorous track commemorating one of the many fallen stars of 2016, while shining a light on the unfairness of those who survived with sharp lines like “the sun will shine on you if you hate women.”

Things slow down pleasantly with Drew Grow’s “Time Bomb,” a funky slow jam with perfectly whiny guitars. The song sounds like melting into the couch with a joint after a long protest/march, as does Carl Newman’s trippy “Our Nero.”

Musician and actress Carrie Brownstein similarly injects attitude into the mellow track “No More Fizz” with her voice, synthesizers, and drum machine. Fellow Sleater-Kinney rocker grrrl Katie Harkin joins her on guitar. Another Sleater-Kinney alum, Corin Tucker brings her smooth and lovely voice to the ballad “Love in The Time of Resistance,” with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin on guitar, bass, and drums, giving the song the essence of big ‘80s hair and fists in the air.

The first tracks, “We Won't Go Back” and “Save our Soul” are riot grrrl angry chants that set the tone of the album, and it’s empowering to see women at the forefront here.

The only lost note is on Sean Croghan’s album closer, temper tantrum “Spider House,” which does less to get listeners fired up and more to confuse them. The momentum of hope built up throughout the record drops completely as Croghan switches between just whispering and echoey yelling of the line “Spider house, oh spider house. Oh won’t you come into the spider house.” The message is lost.

For all the musical talent and good intentions of Battle Hymns, it’s distinctly missing diversity. This starts with the album cover. The drawing of colorless (aka white) people in mid-cancan lacks the racial intersectionality the liberal movement needs, making the speech bubble above that reads “With peace and inclusion for all” unfulfilled. Where’s the melanin? Where are the headscarves, yamakas, or other signs of diversity? Battle Hymns’ paleness translates to its music, with Kathy Foster as virtually the only person of color on the entire album—essentially the token black friend.

While Battle Hymns was made to benefit the entire anti-Trump movement, it’s an album only reflective of the alt-rock world: vague and white. There’s no mention of race, and lyrics are mostly protest chant snippets. The record has a fun, funky sound full of anger and attitude, and of course goes towards a noble cause. But for an album trying to fuel rebellion, the whitewashing certainly runs Battle Hymns out of gas.

6,412 out of 10,000 Rawckus Kung Fu Throwing Stars

"We Won't Go Back"