Music has always been an important facet to activism, and nothing has changed in 2020. One New York City-based indie activist group, Nathan Leigh & The Crisis Actors, recently released an album, Myths, Conspiracy Theories, and Other Stuff I Made Up to Sound Interesting, that not only calls out those in the wrong, but serves as an unforgettable anthem for those who want to take a stand against oppression in all its forms. Unfortunately only growing more relevant in its discussion of racism, white privilege, and the state of modern America, the album is perfect for people looking to discuss current issues and work to make a change.
The project’s namesake, Nathan Leigh, is a composer, writer, and activist who has created music for theaters across the country including the American Repertory Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, and Huntington Theatre Company. With Kyle Jarrow, Nathan Leigh co-created the musicals Big Money and The Consequences.
Released on April 17, 2020, Nathan’s latest album features his own talent on vocals, guitar, piano, clarinet, harp, and percussion, as well as those of “Crisis Actors” Corey Kaiser (Vocals, Bass), Rich DiGregorio (Vocals, Drums). Chelsea Wolf (Vocals), Logan Kovach (Vocals), Nicole Orabona (Vocals), Anthony Cekay (Sax), Molly Goldman (Viola), J Kardong (Pedal Steel), Chris Malone (Trombone), Phil Murphy (Bassoon, Flute), Alicia Rau (Trumpet),
Ethan Rubin (Violin), Brianna Tagliaferro (Cello), Mike Delatizky (Vocals on “Thank You America”), Joel Esher (Vocals on “Thank You America”), and Katie Ike (Vocals on “Thank You America”). The album was written, produced, and engineered by Nathan Leigh, arranged by Nathan Leigh, Corey Kaiser, and Rich DiGregorio, and mastered by Chad Clark at Silver Sonia.
According to its title, the first track of Myths, Conspiracy Theories, and Other Stuff I Made Up to Sound Interesting is “More of a Call-Out Post Than A Song, Really.” Featuring glowing, full instrumentals and smooth, light vocals, the track is musical, but also meaningful. Like the title reveals, the lyrics call out those who think they’re not a part of the problem in clever, detailed verses that discuss problems like rapists in the music scene, whit privilege, and more : “Someone get me a lifeboat / I’m drowning in a sea of white folks
with acoustic guitars / and the worst part is i’m as guilty as you are / the best way to tell you’re part of a problem / is if you don’t think that you’re a part of the problem / ain’t nobody’s hands clean / there’s rapists in our scene / they’re all good dudes backed hard
fucking rock stars.” Along with its the acknowledgement of the horrible people among us, “More of a Call-Out Post Than A Song, Really” also leaves listeners with a positive, encouraging message: “When you feel like giving up / That’s when you can’t give up!”
“More of a Call-Out Post Than A Song, Really” flows right into “Dad Rock (The Disappointment Song)” with upbeat, fast-paced instrumentals. Much like the previous track, “Dad Rock” pokes fun at the washed up rockstars (and adults in general) who “fetishize the youth the way we fetishize rebellion.” Examining the pitfalls and perils of getting older, the song’s spunky lyrics and catchy choruses match the energy of the instrumentals.
The instrumentals of “No Poetry” take on a more mysterious feel, bringing the album into a darker aesthetic. Strings blend with lightly snapping percussion behind sweet vocal harmonies as ‘No Poetry” takes listeners through dramatic twists and turns. The greatest beauty of “No Poetry” lies in the details: the flowing basslines, the lightest of cymbal hits, and lightly wavering notes make this track what it is, whether listeners realize it or not. Smoother and lighter, yet deeper in aesthetic than the previous tracks, “No Poetry” is beautifully composed and presented, an interesting break from some of its faster-paced counterparts.
“All Our Racist Uncles” has a particularly important place thanks to recent events surrounding racial issues. The message is simple: We all have to serve as allies and speak up to the people around us who are ignorant. In upbeat, repetitive rhythms Nathan lays it out: “But all our racist uncles / they just hold abhorrent views / so you’ve gotta talk to your racist uncle / and Ive gotta talk to my racist uncle / and we’ve all gotta talk to our racist uncles / about the fucked up things they say….” Continuing to advocate for women and the LGBTQ+ community after addressing racism, “All Our Racist Uncles” illustrates just one of the things we can all do to better our community.
“Fine, Whatever Jake, But It Can’t Always Just be the Trolley Problem” is a circus of instrumentals. Every individual part contributes to the track’s overall sound, the dynamic shifts between verse and chorus accentuated by a full band much like that found in a Broadway show. Extravagant and embellished, the track is instrumentally exciting, but also features a well-told, setting-based story in the lyrics: “For two years I lived across the street from where biggie grew up / It was a pretty good apartment / And I’d tell people that so they’d think that I was tough / But truth is it was just a pretty good apartment / And now the New York that I never knew is dead / And I’m pretty sure it’s my fault / Maybe that place I knew from books and record sleeves / Was never really real at all.”
“Watch the Waves” is another example of Nathan’s lyrical and storytelling ability backed by lightly flowing, relaxing instrumentals. The diction and rhythm of the lyrics delivered in Nathan’s clear tone adds to the story they weave: “And we’ll dig for the moments of quiet / When the world is on fire / And everything falls around our heads / With the noise getting louder / At least we’ll be proud of what we said / Then we’ll stand on the banks of the Hudson / Looking for nothing / With a city of emeralds at our feet / And we’re running from nothing / We’re just running to nothing / Do it all for nothing / We do it all for nothing.”
“Thank You America” is another activist track that focuses on what’s wrong with our modern world. Patriotic percussion meets strong vocals, combating the problems of our nation with sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek lyrics: “So thank you America / 600 billion for the bankers / Thank you America / Got our priorities straight / Thank you America / My car takes oil by the tanker / And if you can’t afford this life / You don’t deserve to stay.” Nathan’s ability to pinpoint and criticize the problems in the United States through song is not only impressive, but bound to inspire people to truly look at their lives and work to make a change.
Compared to the majority of the other tracks of the album, “This Machine Kills Centrists” is short and snappy with a taste of ska in its horns, growling bass, and off-beat guitar rhythms. The lyrics attack Centrists, a group of people who have notoriously moderate views on political issues which they probably should be able to pick a side on. Utilizing common Centrist excuses such as “Your goals are not realistic,” Your tactics do more harm than good,” and “Sure, I agree with you in theory but I’m staying home,” Nathan & The Crisis Actors throw Centrists’ opinions back at them as they toss the group under the bus for not taking a stand on anything important.
The transition from “This Machine Kills Centrists” to “The Immortan Joe Memorial Highway” sets a beautiful tone for the next track. One of my favorites thanks to its diverse and dynamic instrumentation, the song also provides a nod back to a previous track, “Dad Rock” in its repetition of “All I want is a lot / All I want is a lot more than what I got / All I want is a lot more than nothing.” Much like “Dad Rock,” “The Immortan Joe Memorial Highway” doesn’t hold back in its blatant criticism of the life that many people decide to settle for (“In the end you will be king of nothing”) instead of reaching for their dreams and accepting true happiness.
Nathan’s activism doesn’t get any more obvious than in “How the West Was Won.” From the first verse, it is honest and powerful in its expression of the truth and how it was hidden: “This is how the west was won: / Through genocide and segregation / This is how you build a myth / The heroes and the villains that they’re fighting with.” Even though the past is enough to contend with on its own, Nathan chooses to take on the present as well, with thinly veiled references to the current administration: “This is how you build a wall: /
Tell a big lie to protect the small / Call one side savage and one side strong / And hope to god you’re on the right side and nobody proves you wrong.”
The instrumentals serve to highlight the lyrics of “How the West Was Won,” their influence lighter than that of the vocals to really put the meaning in the spotlight. Sharp piano notes, mournful electric guitar, and grittier vocals emphasize the message that there’s nothing to be proud of when it comes to the hidden history of America and all the misconduct that has gone on since.
“The Tulsa Post-Modernist Society” references the conspiracy theories mentioned in the album’s title, including one that claims “Rosicrucians faked the moon landing in ‘69.” Using the motifs of the moon landing and conspiracies, Nathan examines how we know wrong from right against a backdrop of swinging country-style instrumentals. The twangy, plodding tones and lightly clashing cymbals carry the track through its 4:03 running time with practiced ease, proving Nathan & The Crisis Actors’ musical aptitude as much as their activism.
Jazzy and swinging, “The Importance of Being Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara” brings you into a world of stars with a dazzling mix of walking bass, bluesy horns, and even flute. Despite its fun, mainly jazzy feel, the latter minute of the track grows in intensity, building tension until it grows back into a symphony reminiscent of previous tracks such as “Fine, Whatever Jake, But It Can’t Always Just be the Trolley Problem.” Bringing the album to an almost-close, “The Importance of Being Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara” references a revolutionary, telling another story of wrong vs. right through delivery, diction, and rhetorical questions: “Oh you’re so Ernesto / You’re so Bob Dylan / And I know you’ll make history / Yeah you’ll make millions / And the funny thing, you know it’s true / And the funny thing is that I hope you do /
When the rain comes down, where will you be? / Will you be standing in the bag with itchy trigger fingers? / When the rain comes down, where will you be? / Will you be standing in the front your smile getting bigger?”
The final notes of “The Importance of Being Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara” bring us into the final track of Myths, Conspiracy Theories, and Other Stuff I Made Up to Sound Interesting, “Pirkei Avot.” The perfect last song for a record, “Pirkei Avot” leaves us with an inspiring message surrounded by sweet, melodic string instrumentals: Even though things may not get better quite yet, you should never let the lack of progress break you. Instead use it for fuel and remember “There’s gonna be time / So much time / And when you feel like giving up / That’s when you can’t give up.”
Like everyone else, Nathan Leigh & The Crisis Actors have had to cancel their touring plans for the indefinite future, but they can’t wait to continue spreading their message once it is again safe to do so.
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***Like the majority of my reviews, a submission fee was charged for this post.***