Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mekons' "Ancient & Modern": Music Review

This starts, the subtitle tells us, in 1911. Edwardian hopes emerge from the tinkling and creaking sounds opening "Warm Summer Sun": "Firelight and toast after I come home from playing cricket", the narrator muses. But, this is no Village Green preserved from a sunny afternoon on a Kinks record. "I look out on corpses, skeleton trees" reveals the "unimaginable hell in front of my eyes."

For their twenty-sixth album, this Leeds-founded ensemble in their thirty-fourth year can look back themselves on a career from heaven to hell and back (to paraphrase their titles from a live LP or two), of raucous merriment and searing sorrow in their diverse, punk-folk rooted approach. The CD is cleverly packaged as if an old phonograph record, with witty band member monikers and period illustrations, but this presentation plays against, or off, the serious contents of its untidy moral tales.

Mekons embody the stories of people caught up in the gap between the idealized and the real. Their political outlook incorporates, on this album as many before, references to diverse struggles: "it's really just a story that's been told", they conclude on "Arthur's Angel", only to add as the final line, "a story that's been sold".

A reflective album of diverse melodies, these nine Mekons share a varied soundscape. The promotional tour for this release alternates between "a quiet night in" and "a wild night out"; this album balances these two moods. Acoustics dominate "Warm Summer Sun" but clash with the warbling, anguished vocals that follow the pastoral opening. "Space in Your Face" recalls the louder, radio-friendly (if subversively themed) stage of the band twenty-odd years ago, as if the Clash learned better lyrics and articulated less facile politics: "I'll make the world think light is dark and maybe just convince myself" goes this song, starting with the anarchist bombing of the Los Angeles Times building and ending with a bitter verbal blast from a betrayed lover.

The personal and political swirl in this martial, brittle rocking tune. Next comes a tipsy, woozy "Geeshie" vamped in earthier manner by Sally Timms. Her insinuating vocals suit a teasing style--if with a more anarchic and existentialist lyric than may have graced a music-hall once. "Gonna build another bomb and hope the doctor comes while there's still time." The enigmatic singer toasts: "To the splendor and the crimes, Nothing happens twice. Raise a glass of wine and try to still time."

"I Fall Asleep" continues in this vein of bitter reflection, a stately ballad with simple piano. Jon Langford's voice, strained if yearning, captures well the method of Mekons: they combine the amateur singer striving for poignancy and emotion, backed by a professional band that matches their vocal capabilities to the challenging, dense, carefully composed lyrics. Here, "I fall asleep when I should pray" dissolves, after male and female renditions, into a swirl of distortion and repetition as if left like a needle on a gramophone, until strings return and the chorus builds to a hymn-like resignation.

"The head of John the Baptist sitting on a tea tray" proves a memorable image, as "Calling All Demons" summons up some haunting spirits, starting off as if Captain Beefheart, in voice and guitar, before smoothing out into a very David Bowie delivery from his "Scary Monsters" period. It tells of a man home from India to the "East Side Irish slums" with "a filthy city river and bubbling sedition"-- this murk drifts into "Ugly Bethesda", the Welsh counterpart, the mining town during a strike. with slate stone contending against "muslin curtains" with a hint of the exotic and erotic in this song, which hints of the Orient in percussion and strings edgily set off against another vocal by Timms, hesitant and trapped in its desire and pain.

The title track begins a three-song stretch that shows the band's music at its best. It mingles the folk with the rock as if the British electric and eclectic styles of the late 1960s and early 1970s simmered into the punk generation ten years after. "Ancient and Modern" spans much in a few minutes. Its lyrics speak of both the "sepia glow" of nostalgia and the "mask of nothingness" that represents the coming, or past, century. Atrocity and "imaginary rites" contend against "slow trains" and "horse races" and cricket again. The war looms: "crawling up the muddy hill, dropping like flies"-- as if Thomas Hardy's poems about modern brutality found fresh and weary voice in this miniature epic, on an album recorded in Devon, with this song featuring a Welsh male chorus.

Langford's warped vocals carry "Afar & Forlorn" back to a singer who "laughs and wakes up smiling on the grassy mound a hundred years ago" even as the song emphasizes the distance and the loneliness of one who has strayed into sadness. The accordion and the guitar, the drums and the fiddle combine to convey this isolation.

"Honey Bear" prolongs this search for the end in the beginning, a rousing straightforward rock song that belies another complex parable. "The further the story is from the truth, the more you need propaganda": Langford's warning proves how relevant this album is for our times as much as any past century's application. The speaker flees the village green and blue sky, as if madness or frustration impels him to "have a long conversation with the honey bear" far from Pooh Corner.

Disturbing scenes of poisoned sheepdogs and pale eyes fading segue into "The Devil at Rest"--which may be a misnomer. This tiptoes through a tune that hesitates and sneaks around. Timms pokes about the song, telling of a balloon rising with "black burning smoke" until a promise emerges. Typically, it holds off a calmer world until first the apocalypse. "We'll cut the grass after the bombardment."

"Arthur's Angel" closes this suite with a mid-tempo electric tune that sighs at the folly of it all. A soldier trapped in No Man's Land articulates his last thoughts, wondering "if you see the same as me?" The wires mark boundaries, the lines on maps. Treasures once sought for salvation tarnish, as they are replaced by "the guns, the manufacturer" who produces the "national treasures of their age."

This could smack on paper of the Marxist seminar or agitprop pamphlet, but Mekons after a third of their own century know better than to peddle catchy slogans or facile rhetoric. As mature music that sweeps up intelligent, elusive imagery into compact songs through this well-sequenced delivery of radically traditional tunes, this album redeems itself as both a tribute to the forgotten men and women of the past and to this band who makes their voices and thoughts come alive in a time of necessary reflection and direction, 1911-2011.

(Featured 10-7-11 at PopMatters-- slightly altered for Amazon US 10-7-11)

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Reviewer confuses Jon Langfords voice with that of Tom Greenhalgh.

Fionnchú said...

I admit confusion, as no vocal credits per song were given. Thanks for having a more discerning ear than I did; I wish the liner notes explained who sang what (at least for the males!).