A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 14, 2007
Natural, the new album by The Mekons, is a deceptively subdued effort marking the 30th anniversary of these punk-rock survivors. If the band was getting back to its roots with the previous effort, 2004’s Punk Rock — on which The Mekons covered old songs by The Mekons — on the new one, the band seems to be exploring even deeper roots.
With songs written following a retreat at an old farmhouse in the remote English countryside, the lyrics and much of the music suggest a primordial journey back to ancient, pastoral Britain — the days of pagan joy when country folk danced around old stone circles and talked to mysterious birds.
“The twisted trees sing/Dark, dark, dark/Broken branches hidden/Far down below,” Mekon Tom Greenhalgh moans on the dirgelike first song.
“We wait for fire/We used to dance/Around the stone head/It used to sing to us,” Jon Langford sings on “Perfect Mirror,” which, if you didn’t pay attention to the lyrics, would sound like a spooky cowboy song.
“Dance the toes right off your feet/Making up the story as you go/The dancers are all dead we know/Behind the white stone door,” Sally Timms sings in “White Stone Door,” a lilting tune featuring an African kalimba.
The Mekons’ Web site has a section of notes on the album, with references to The Golden Bough, Yeats, the I Ching, the Talmud, and Goya.
You can almost imagine getting lost in the soft, seductive, sometimes meandering sounds, gradually realizing that, all along, the members of the band have been busy constructing a giant wicker man — and you’re inside waiting for the burning.
“Ignore the human sacrifice/Burning, in the desert burning/Take no notice take no care/Burning, in the desert burning,” go the chantlike lyrics of “Burning in the Desert Burning.”
But the song isn’t really a description of some ancient druidic rite. There are references here that have modern implications. “Martyrs queuing up for heaven/Burning, in the desert burning/Children queuing up for hell/Burning, in the desert burning.”
Sometimes it seems that this record is set in some post-apocalyptic society populated by rural gangs of outlaws. Paste magazine quoted Timms describing Natural as “campfire recordings in the nuclear winter.”
“The children have been told to kill/And taught to pray for plenty/And on the earth where blood is spilt/The few must feed the many,” Greenhalgh and Langford sing on “Give Me Wine or Money.”
Natural may be hard to warm up to for Mekons fans longing for rousing rockers like “Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem,” “Memphis, Egypt,” or “The Flame That Killed John Wayne.” But there are some great moments here.
With its plunking banjo and honking harmonica, “Give Me Wine or Money” shows that The Mekons, while dabbling in a wide variety of styles, remain the greatest punk-country band. And “The Hope and The Anchor,” thanks to Timms’ breathy, angelic vocals and Susie Honeyman’s fiddle, is one of the prettiest tunes The Mekons have ever done.
This is the perfect album when you feel like dancing with ghosts.
* Going Way Out With Heavy Trash by Heavy Trash As founder and frontman for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Jon Spencer was known for reducing the blues to its raunchy essential spark. Teamed up with Matt Verta-Ray, Spencer’s Heavy Trash does much the same with rockabilly. This is Heavy Trash’s second album and it’s even more fun than the (self-titled) first one.
Rockabilly is the basic building block here, but this is heavily mutated and mutilated rockabilly, beyond the “psychobilly” of decades past. Spencer sounds like a dangerous lunatic screaming through a megaphone at a riot.
On “That Ain’t Right” the Trash boys, backed by The Sadies, sound like nastier versions of Johnny Cash. “Crying Tramp” is a tremolo-heavy, ’50s-ish swamp ballad from Mars. But my favorite is the song “Way Out,” which shows the influences of Link Wray, Johnny Burnett, and The Yardbirds. There’s just a touch of organ and snarling shis might be trash, but it’s trash done right.
* One Man Against the World by John Schooley and His One Man Band. Those who attended this year’s Thirsty Ear Festival were treated to the crash ’n’ bash one-man blues of Memphis street musician Richard Johnston. Well, here’s a Texas version of Johnston, an even crazier one-man blues machine named John Schooley.
Like Johnston, Schooley plays guitar (lotsa slide!), drums, and sometimes harmonica simultaneously. He sometimes drifts into country music, knowing full well the cultural and cosmic connections between country and the blues, creating a raw but joyful noise way beyond what you’d think a lone humanoid could produce.
Schooley covers R.L. Burnside, Howlin’ Wolf, the late Lee Hazlewood (“If you don’t like Lee Hazlewood, I don’t like you,” Schooley says in the liner notes), and the rockabilly classic “Wildcat Tamer.” And he’s even got an original murder ballad, “The Crooked Path,” based on a true story about the killing of four people in a house in Missouri in 1951, in which the killer confesses, “They were good neighbors, but they didn’t like me.”
Radio Mekons: It’s been a few years since I’ve done a full-fledged Mekons set on Terrell’s Sound World. So tune in this Sunday on KSFR-FM 90.7 (simulcast on 101.1 FM). The show starts at 10 p.m., and I’ll start playing The Mekons at 11
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