Once upon a time, coffeehouses and college auditoriums were home to a generation of troubadours who wrote songs commenting on the social ills of the 1960s. The so-called “protest singers” included folks like Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Buffy St. Marie, Joan Baez, and a fella named Bob Dylan. Then Mr. D plugged in an electric guitar and things changed. Well, some things did.
Come the early 1970s, performers like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Arlo Guthrie kept the folk/rock/country tunes coming. But there wasn’t much “protest” in the music anymore. The emphasis was on personal introspection and gentle apolitical sentiments. In that new wave, Aztec Two-Step debuted on Electra Records in 1972. Unlike many of their contemporaries, however, the duo of Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman have been blowing on the embers of harmonized social commentary ever since. Their new 40th anniversary release, Cause & Effect, is a perfect demonstration of their ongoing concerns. It not only includes re-workings of “message songs” from their extensive catalogue, but it addresses issues with long histories on an international stage.
Musically speaking, Fowler and Schulman are noted for their polished harmonies and intricate acoustic guitar work. Lyrically, they’ve tapped into poetic roots like the Beats, having taken their name from a Lawrence Ferlinghetti line. They proudly tout the fact that their “Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty” was the first recorded song based on Jack Kerouac, a figure now evoked by many an artist in many a genre. Along the way, their recordings have employed a variety of supporting players. On Cause & Effect, they’re joined by bassist Fred Holman, who adds subtle bottom lines to their new interpretations of their self-penned favorites.
Throughout the new collection, nods to their contemporaries and influences are self-evident. In addition, sadly, many of their updated tunes describe circumstances that haven’t improved much over the decades. For example, strumming guitars and old-fashioned wheezing harmonica kick off the duo’s tribute to Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition, “Falling Down Clowns.” With similar themes, the duo sing about “Black Africa,” a continent in continual need of help. “Remembrance Day” is a paean to fallen soldiers, but for the dead in Northern Ireland, not for Vietnam this time around. But “War” is as universal as all those old protest songs used to say. How do we stop the madness? After all these years, there’s still no answer.