“Tasty, incomprehensible music.”
Yanno, an odd thing about the digital generation of music; the procession of the songs doesn’t necessarily mean that much anymore.
But that sucks, doesn’t it? Albums like Dark Side Of the Moon or Lamb Lies Down On Broadway are entirely configured around the idea that their listeners are e going all the way through, preferably on headphones, and stonage optional.
And I am as guilty as anybody. The ebb and flow of an album is apparently being discarded, victims of the same waves that are destroying the old school music labels. I will not miss the labels, but I also am curious to see if artists manage to arrive at a format that allows them to string songs together in a meaningful way. I mostly listen to my music in some random playlist format or other, and while that makes for some interesting juxtapositions, it also destroys meaningful sequencing. And sometimes, that sequencing matters. In some case, it matter a LOT.
Or is that just a weird anachronism of the Album FM and gatefold double-disc era? Is London Calling an epochal album only if you start with the title track? And speaking of the Clash, is Sandinista’s weirder tracks only tolerable if mixed into a playlist?
It wasn’t all that surprising that the punk movement pushed back on the whole idea of concept albums and studio artistry. We can argue about whether that was a misguided notion or not; but to me, moving the emphasis back toward amateur skills and back into the live venue were certainly valid. Abandoning the exalted musician levels. Shoving into the political realm; and anybody can Do It Yourself.
Maybe the Sex Pistols were packaged, but the Clash learned their gig by listening to crap 45s, and the Ramones were a cover band that never were good enough to actually play covers.
Against this backdrop, punk and semi-punk bands were being swallowed up, packaged, and pushed out. And there were a bunch of idealistic art school students, who borrowed instruments from the people who eventually become the Gang of Four; but they refused to actually learn any of their instruments, distilling the DIY aesthetic to its essence. And because record labels are run by idiots, they got signed. And their first single was a piss-take of the Clash’s overly-earnest political stance, titled “Never Been In A Riot.”
And then they got weird. They refused to be photographed; they refused to actually learn their instruments. Although McLaren managed to make that into an twisted fashion advantage with Sid, that only worked as a marketing concept. When the Mekons recorded their second album, and all traded instruments so nobody actually knew anything about what they were playing, Virgin was not amused and they were dumped.
And they sat around for a couple of years, until the UK miners strike of 84-85, and they decided to play some songs in support the strike. And after that, they spent some time woodshedding with old country and blues albums, and were financed by a crazy fan (Sophie) to release the epochal Fear and Whiskey album; a weird amalgam of inexperience, passion, and respect for American music.
As I have documented over some time, in the interim, the Mekons have been most successful at one thing: making awesome music that major labels hate, while cultivating a fervent fan base of music critics and thirty or forty aging lunatics.
I was introduced to the Mekons by a fervent review of the album Rock ‘n’ Roll, and saw them in a local club and they were awesome, in all the best punk and post-punk ways. I left the show thrumming and dazzled by the energy and honesty they poured into their music, not to mention the hilarious between song banter.
And we went back to the same club on the next tour, and walked out cuz they sucked so hard. Years later, I discovered they had just been abandoned by their label, which explains why they were so bad. The next time, on an independent label, they again rocked my face off.
“Tasty, incomprehensible music”
Last week, Sin Records (their own label) released the 26th album from these stubborn fucks. And being a stubborn fuck myself, I am all over it. And I have to say, this is one of the prettiest CD releases I have ever seen. The artwork is stellar, and the cardboard folds out and has lovely interior artwork as well, and lyrics, and plentiful liner notes filled with in-jokes and esoteric references.
And since the Mekons are musical artists as well as graphic artists, the sounds contained are worthy of the packaging.
The Mekons are nothing if not iconoclasts. After a couple of dalliances with ‘mainstream’ music, they have refused to follow any pattern, pigeonhole, or pre-disposition. And by doing so, have endeared themselves to an admittedly small but fervent fan base (of which I am one, obv); but also established an artistic path of travel that no other musical group has ever accomplished. Records. Art, solo and collaborative. Solo work. Side projects. mulit-media art installations. Slideshow retrospectives. They have also done the world’s best anarcho-lesbian cross-dressing pirate musical.
I will start of by saying that I love bands who refuse to accede to music industry demands; that is a fair part of my affection for this band. But beyond that; they bring in musicians of any age, race, gender, or skill level, They Are All Mekons. Is there anything more punk than that? And at the same time, more in keeping with the best traditions of both English and American vernacular music?
Aside: I write this a couple of days after giving up on a Milwaukee show and booking my shit down in Chicago for next Wednesday’s show. I have gone back and forth on this for two weeks, and have tons of work to do (of course for little money) but in keeping with last week’s VERY SUCCESSFUL I DON’T GIVE A FUCK DAY, I decided to not give a fuck. Also, I know considering the advancing age and the geographic separation, Mekons gigs will not become more plentiful, so I KNOW I will kick my own ass if I don’t go. Especially considering the initial reports from the shows on the West Coast. )
I had initially thought to do this music post as a song-by-song review of the disc, but upon reflection and drinking, it seems to me that that is focusing on the trees while ignoring the forest. None of these songs are hits, and they are not meant to be. None of them are meant to be taken as separate from the others, and indeed, I get the impression that the album itself is not meant to be taken without considering the existing body of work.
But having said that, I do need to remark on the opening track. Because the opening track is important, here. It’s called Warm Summer Sun, and Tom Greenhalgh sings it in his bracing, quavering vocals; and Suzie Honeyman plays her violin to alternate between warm, soaring sections, and squeaking, disturbing squalls. Is it only coincidence that the squeaking parts provide a disturbing backdrop to the most bucolic lyrics, and the warmer parts counterpoint the lyrics that say
Night and day there was trouble; That the eye could almost see…… I look out on corpses. skeleton trees. An unintelligible hell in front of my eyes
This is not the “Warm Summer Sun” of a Fountains of Wayne, but of seasoned artist who have seen much; too much. A person singing about enjoying a pleasant day, in some horrible aftermath…and then you consider what effect Warm Summer Sun has on the corpses he is looking out on, and you realize this is not exactly a feel-good song.
The Mekons do not specialize in feel-good songs. They opened their major-label debut album with a vicious diatribe against the music industry.
But they do raise a ruckus. “Space In Your Face” a song about a bombing at the L.A. Times, is as rocking as anything they have done in recent years.
This would be the point where I mention the concept. The Mekes, in a curiously iconoclastic response to their art-school background and the geographic distances, never bother to write songs until they get together, and then when they’ve got a concept or framework to work within. Rock ‘n’ Roll was a blistering indictment of the music biz (and IMHZO, as good as London Calling); Journey To The End Of The Night was a digression on war and the waning years of Western culture; OOOH! (Out Of Our Heads) was a music/art tour, dealing with what happens between the ears. ME was a techno-influenced digression on self-involvement. The last album, Natural, was written and recorded in the wake of a friend’s death, and while it isn’t somber by any means, it is a group of artists looking square into the void.
The new album has a bit more obvious conceit, comparing the world of a hundred years ago to now. Now don’t get dismissive, as a concept it is not disruptive and does not keep the songs from being songs.
So, you know, the music.
I know you all expect me to love this album. Well, I like it a lot. And I am liking it a lot more, every time I listen to it.
I found Natural to be a bit monochromatic, as good as it was. Journey the same. I really liked some of OOOH, but found some points where things did not work quite the way they had hoped, I think.
Not so with Ancient & Modern (and am I the first one to notice that the natural abbreviation for the album is A&M, the label that so unceremoniously, maliciously, dumped them in the midst of that long-ago tour?). This album from a long-lived band, one of the most long lived bands, who have been through the fire, and are getting older, and have learned the places to lean on their strengths, the places to let the blank spaces speak, and the times that you howl. And they stare at the wonder and horror of being human, and the horrors and wonders of what humans do, and they know the only thing that can be done is make art. This is a band that trusts themselves and their bandmates, and are confident and fearless.
They know the strengths they bring, and they are comfortable enough to let the egos go. Every song is credited to the Mekons. Sally sings, and Jon, of course; Tom and Rico and Suzie too. Sometimes Steve Goulding whomps the bejabbers out of his drum kit, and sometimes he plays that stupid drumbox. Lu Edmonds and Sarah Corina play where they are necessary, and lay back when it’s not. And sometimes, that fucking shruti box shows up.
This album is the sound of collaboration without reserve. The quiet songs are considered and patient, with subtle musical touches that reward concentrated listening. The loud songs are ebullient and disturbing. The Burlington Welsh Male Chorus on “Ancient & Modern” is particularly sublime. But the band trades vocals, even in the middle of a song. Nobody takes a solo. These are artists much more concerned about the art they produce than they are about getting their credit or royalties.
The Mekons formed as a punk band. Hell, they had just seen the Clash and the Pistols; what the hell else could they do? But they never agreed with nihilism or three-chord purity. They came to love Hank Williams and the Sundowners as much as the Ramones; and they put that all into what they did. they played any weird-ass instrument that came their way. The music industry absorbed them, passed them by, tried to absorb them again, barfed them up, and went back to ignoring them. And along the way, they continued to make amazing, challenging, life-affirming work that is concerned with death. And drinking.
Wednesday I am going to see one of my favorite bands. It feels like seeing an old friend, who has been off doing wonderful things. It is likely I will misbehave.
“Tasty, incomprehensible music.”
Although I recognize that this band is an acquired taste at best; if you like artists who work true, music that is out of the mainstream, or even just aging functional drunks, you really could do worse than blow ten buck on this album. What are ya gonna do, spend it on a Big Mac Meal?
Tasty, incomprehensible music, indeed, thunder.