David T. Little’s Soldier Songs Gives Voice to Veterans’ Views of the Horror of War
To what degree is an artist responsible for making music accessible to an audience who might be influenced by it? Is the goal of reaching those who aren’t already converted necessary, worthwhile…or even possible? When Stiv Bators crooned “Video games train the kids for war,” with the Lords of the New Church in 1983, he did it over a catchy synthesizer riff. That song was popular on college radio and in clubs; it even aired on MTV. Did it make a difference? Would anyone have cared if, instead, Bators had been singing “Get money, get money?” Does it make any sense for an artist to fine-tune a message to get it across, or is that a waste of time? Percussionist/composer David T. Little’s most recent album Soldier Songs, recently out from Innova, raises questions like these.
First premiered in 2006 at the nadir of the Bush/Cheney reign of terror by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, the album is a performance piece that intersperses and sometimes makes pastiches of quotes from several generations of American war veterans among Little’s eclectic, cerebral songs. Musically speaking, the audience this will resonate the most with will probably be fans of proggy mathrock bands like the Mars Volta and System of a Down – a niche crowd, but not an insubstantial one. While the voices of the veterans – hushed, angry, sometimes still shellshocked – are the most resonant here, the songs themselves have a potent, tersely worded punk rock sarcasm. This is the rare album where the lyrics frequently overshadow the music. David Adam Moore’s snarky, operatic baritone adds a stagy, snidely bombastic surrealism and over-the-top flair over the moody menace of the versatile, often explosive punk-classical group Newspeak.
The introduction is a pastiche of quotes, many of them memorable, set against a backdrop of ominous cannonfire drums. A woman revisits her decision to join the military, reminding how many young people make that choice as a way to escape the poverty trap or earn an education. The second track brings on the punk rock sarcasm, sort of the Dead Kennedys set to swaying, minimialistic art-rock. From there Moore revisits the aforementioned Stiv Bators observation, followed by the creepy chamber rock of the vividly self-explanatory Counting the Days.
Still Life with Tank and Ipod revisits the video game theme with a cruelly surreal proggy metal attack, contrasting with the moody dirge Old Friends with Large Weapons. Hollywood Ending artfully juxtaposes ominous lows with snarkily bubbly highs, a litany of gruesome imagery that picks up with a groove that’s practically disco, underscoring the surrealism of the fact that this is not a movie: people are actually dying here. Another sound collage, Steel Rain, lets the vets explain the terror of being on the wrong side of a bombing attack. After that, the hauntingly minimalist Hunting Emmanuel Goldstein reminds that a police state crackdown on civil liberties after a terrorist attack plays straight into the terrorists’ hands. The album ends with the understandably vitriolic response of a parent whose child was killed in battle, and a long, hypnotic collage which doesn’t hesitate to address the issue that war is inevitably a proxy battle, the have-nots doing the haves’ dirty work. Will this album make any converts? Probably not. But to paraphrase Phil Kline, it’s inspiring and validating for the rest of us. That Little achieved it by letting this surprisingly diverse cast portray the horrors of war enhances both its credibility and power.