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.
Melodically, there’s a bit of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” in “Olga (Black September).” It’s about a grieving widow looking for peace after the 1972 Olympics massacre. “Lazarus and Simon” is a little bit like Roger McGuinn singing Dylan lyrics, with a lot bluegrass guitar and mandolin pickin’. “Ban Vinai” is about refugees in Southeast Asia, but the feelings expressed would easily also describe the plight of immigrants anywhere. Drawing from the talking blues tradition, the pair comment on homelessness in “Shantytown.” Appropriately, flute sounds open “What Would The Indians Say” which addresses ecology, animal testing, and greed.
Not all the songs are so topical. Looking back to pre-Columbian mythology, “Rabbit In The Moon” plays with the Aztec idea that there’s a non-violent bunny in the moon who now might be screaming for what man has done. To showcase what the guys can do as players, I’d point to Fowler’s “Better Watch out (For The Rastafarians).” This ain’t no protest song—how can you complain about that Rasta smoke? Speaking of recreational drugs and casual sex, Shulman’s “Life In The 80’s” mourns the bygone days when such pleasures weren’t so potentially deadly and so ruinously addictive. The rules, they remind us, have changed.
Some of the songs don’t overtly fit in the “message” category. Fowler’s love of John Lennon inspired his 2011 collaboration with Tom Dean called The Nu-Utopians. For Cause & Effect, Fowler resurrected his dirge for Lennon, “Johnny’s An Angel” which includes short guitar quotes from The Beatles songbook. On the other side of that story, “Just Another Nothing With A Name” is a cry against Mark David Chapman, who got ahold of a gun and became a name in the papers.
So Cause & Effect returns us to those heady days in youth-oriented coffeehouses, and I don’t mean Starbucks. Without question, Aztec Two-Step can sing about anything and sound very good; it’s a major bonus they have something to talk about. Do you remember when that mattered?