Native American, human rights campaigner, educator and artist, Buffy Sainte-Marie claims that censorship by the US government suppressed her musical career and those of other First Nations protest singers in the 1970s. In the face of adversity she never stopped working. Alongside all her other interests she managed a smattering of film appearances, a spot of humanitarian advocacy and an Oscar for Up Where We Belong. Hell, she even continued to release albums.
Perhaps in a new America, her latest release Running For The Drum might see her regain some popular acclaim. It should certainly get her noticed, for on the Venn diagram of music it sits at the impossible but wonderful intersection of Cher, Bob Dylan and M.I.A.
No No Keshagesh (a Cree word for greedy guts) is a swirling racket of criticism railing against the avarice of modern society, from exploitation of indigenous people to obsessions with money and technology. The pile-up of foot-stomping beats, sampled crowd noises and Sainte-Marie’s oddly stern but euphoric vocal admonition of materialism will have you shaking yourself free of all worldly possessions.
Cho Cho Fire and Working For The Government are both similarly modern sounding collisions of Native American chanting, samples, synthesisers and guitars. The first calls for a new world order, while the second takes a swipe at the cult of patriotism in the USA. Less successful than the opening track, the mixture of styles and the loaded lyrics make these interesting nonetheless.
The album changes pace dramatically on Little Wheel Spin And Spin. The ghostly, frail vocal and gently plucked guitar lend a sinister tone appropriate to the lyrics that span the ignominies of human religious and political zealotry. The track contains a whole world of depressing meaning in three minutes.
Too Much Is Never Enough is a stirring ballad that recalls her 1990s UK hit The Big Ones Get Away. To The Ends Of The World sparkles with a ’50s-feeling piano riff, and When I Had You has a charming jazzy indolence that brings Martha Wainwright to mind – indeed vocally the two singers are not miles apart – and Betting My Heart On You is a rousing honky-tonk love song.
While there’s not much to fault with these songs, they are familiar motifs heard many times before. They sit in somewhat dull contrast with the innovation of the opening tracks. America The Beautiful, which opens with the line “There were Choctaw in Alabama and Chippewa in Saint Paul”, is a longing paean to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s lost homeland; startling in its affection, it suffers from schmaltzy production. Still This Love Goes On closes the album sweetly evoking the change of seasons in the American landscape to illustrate an enduring love.
Fashions might change, stars shine and wane, but on this evidence Buffy Sainte-Marie will always know what makes a good song. The only real failing of the album is that after the tumult of the first four tracks, the rest seems a bit one-paced. Individually the songs have many merits but, put together, the album becomes bogged down in familiar sentimentality. And yet Running For The Drum has a lot to offer, and is sure to stand out as one of 2009’s more rewarding oddities.