Pity the Mekons. On the verge of Year No. 35, the Chicago-via-Leeds, England, band has amassed one of the more adventurous catalogs in rock n’ roll.
Yet despite the relatively consistent roll-out of material—the tally of albums and collections is near 30—the artsy punk-county-folk collective has soldiered on in near-obscurity. In fact, it’s a safe bet that rock critics comprise a sizable contingent of the band’s fan base.
None of that, sadly, is likely to change with Ancient & Modern, although the promise of a forthcoming Mekons documentary could finally lift the band’s profile. For newcomers, this is as fine a place as any to dive into what could be a daunting mass of material. There’s meaty political rock anthems, boozy stream-of-conscious ruminations on religion, a piano vamp, and chant-like songs outfitted with plucked lutes and violins. After the folksy rock of 2007’s Natural, this is one of the looser later-day Mekons albums, and it ambles through genres with a devilish grin.
Always-exquisite vocalist Sally Timms has her fun dancing around the rootsy cabaret of “Geeshie,” and Jon Langford is in his comfort zone in “Space in Your Face,” on which there’s a grand break-up, a drunken spill in the street, and a reference or two to the American labor movement—all while digital effects shoot over guitars like laser beams. “The Devil at Rest” is quieter, a group sing-along with island rhythms. And “Calling All Demons” is a bluesy stomp with accordions.
Thematically, the 11 songs here promise to look at the world just on the brink of WWI and offer parallels with modern society. There’s no doubt plenty of material to please the most cynical of rock n’ roll socialists, but one of the Mekons’ strengths has long been their ability to humanize big issues.
See, for instance, “I Fall Asleep,” where Tom Greenhalgh is the tortured, woozy narrator who stumbles through the piano ballad. “My darling cannot understand what I have done,”
Greenhalgh sings, as images of combat rest alongside those
of loneliness. So, to sum up the Mekons’ history lesson: War,
drink, break-ups ,and a good tune. —Todd Martens
Photo: Francesca Allen