Release Date: Sep 27, 2011
Record label: Bloodshot
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Barely famous after 30 years of damning the marketplace, Mekons fear no genre. They all but invented country punk in the mid-Eighties, but dabbled in everything from indie-rock thunder to baffling electronic albums. Ancient & Modern, their first in four years, is meaty and grizzled folk rock. Sally Timms’ near-whisper strides through the cabaret-jazzy "Geeshie"; Tom Greenhalgh's pipes anchor melancholy strummers; and semi-leader Jon Langford leaps around the stage ("Space in Your Face").
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”.
The early decades of the 19th century, known in the UK as the Edwardian Era, were years of great industrial innovation. The proliferation of rail and assembly lines allowed corporations to grow to enormous and newly lucrative size, and the laying of the transatlantic cable allowed America and Europe to communicate with an efficiency that previous generations would have found incredible. As businessmen grew increasingly wealthy, the divisions between social classes became even more pronounced and even more rigid.
The Mekons have been a going concern since 1976, a distant and almost unfathomable era by rock & roll standards, and since they've always seemed to be purposefully out of step with the world around them, the notion that these former punk firebrands are imagining themselves as denizens of the early 20th century on their 26th album, Ancient & Modern, seems at once curious and perfectly reasonable. Ancient & Modern finds the Mekons moving back and forth between scrappy, electric rock & roll and acoustic-based performances that reflect sounds of the past, including eerie nostalgic reveries ("Warm Summer Sun"), Tin Pan Alley jazz ("Geeshie"), stately ballads ("I Fall Asleep"), world-weary folk ("Afar & Forlorn"), and lean, wiry blues ("Calling All Demons"), all alongside un-amplified variations of their usual approach. But as the Mekons look back into another age, their obsessions are the same as they've always been -- politics, class, society, rage, fear, resignation, and bemusement with a culture that seems to crumble before their eyes.
I left off with the Mekons after their masterful 1989 album, The Mekons Rock and Roll, which included what I think is one of the greatest songs ever made in the punk spirit, Memphis, Egypt. Apparently they kept chugging along through lineup changes and a buying public (at least in the States) that never really bought into their unique brand of passion, activism and Leeds-iness. I can’t speak for what came between, but it appears that the Mekons have not lost a step in the quavering, righteous indignation sweepstakes.
Emerging from the late-punk/early-post-punk scene of 1970s England, the Mekons have undergone numerous shifts in the course of the their 35-year career. After beginning as a can’t-play-their-instruments punk band, they moved on to weird but exciting lo-fi experimentation, broke up, reformed, released the founding text of so-called “alt-country,” Fear and Whiskey, and turned out the ultimate anti-rock-n’-roll rock-n’-roll album, The Mekons Rock ‘n Roll, by the end of the ‘80s, and by the turn of the century, the band’s creative energies seemed spent. Everything that had made the band so appealing, both musically (their seamless absorption of diverse influences into a singular vision) and extra-musically (their democratic organization, commitment to leftist political expression, and disgusted but never hopeless worldview) seemed to have become exhausted.
Like most bands whose members have been playing together for half of their lives, the Mekons have mellowed out as time has gone on. The rollicking punk of the English octet’s earliest days has been steadily replaced with sparser compositions that invite labels including “folk-punk“ and “alt-country.” But the important elements of the band’s sound have remained intact, including Jon Langford’s quirky voice and lyrics that beam with vivid detail and LOL-inducing quips. What the Mekons have lost in energy has been made up for with their unique charm, which has never shone more brightly than during the past decade.
Obviously I’m not the most impartial reviewer on this one – but I think this is a great record. Ancient & Modern is approximately the 26th record that The Mekons have made (it depends what you’re counting as to whether that’s accurate). It is imaginative and rich work, with the thematic coherence and musical eclecticism of some of their best LPs.