Sonic adventurers, punk rock fundamentalists, exuberant luddites, willing outcasts...
Mekons formed in Leeds, England 34 years ago in 1977 and Ancient & Modern is their 26th album. This current classic line-up has remained intact since the mid-1980's. Throughout their history, they have worked collaboratively and collectively with everything credited to the band, never to individuals. Their mind-boggling output consistently blurs the lines between high art and low and has included exhibitions in the UK and US, a deranged musical recorded and staged with Kathy Acker, an art performance with Vito Acconci and several books including the unique art catalog/unfinished novel "Mekons United."
On Ancient & Modern the Mekons bring you an “album” just like albums used to be; cardboard things filled with cheeky, chunky 78rpm shellac. Just take a look at the cover of Ancient & Modern and you’ll know what we’re talking about! Let the band take you for a walk down memory lane, to the world as it was just before the First World War ... to the Edwardian Era, to the Naughty Naughties a hundred years ago, a cozy nostalgic world: cricket on the village green, punting down the river in a striped blazer and boater, off with the hounds, picnic hampers, community singing, mistresses and wives, mysticism, secret societies, dangerous poetry, radical modern art, Freud, national strikes, revolution, anarchists, bombers, British concentration camps ... oops, is that really a hundred years ago?!? The Mekons travel back/forward to a world unaware that it’s waiting for the pistol to CRACK CRACK CRACK in Sarajevo, plotting their singular course through the digital tsunami of contemporary sounds that blare tinnily from your mobile phone or spin at 78rpm in His Master’s Voice from the horn of your exquisite Gramophone
Riffs, Rants & Rumors: The Mekons Rewrite History on ‘Ancient & Modern’
The Mekons have been around long enough to have a sense of history that matches their perspective as first-generation punks—Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh co-founded the band during punk’s 1977 Summer of Hate and are still sparking the Mekons’ mix of arty lyrics, provocative politics and punky attitude today. But even for a band with thirty-four years in the rearview mirror, the suffix of the title Ancient & Modern: 1911-2011—the Mekon’s latest album—sounds a bit ambitious in its scope. Since the ‘80s, the band has increasingly filtered its own punk-poet roots through traditional, rootsy influences like folk and country, and that sensibility serves them well as they cast their artistic eye to an era well before their own individual lifetimes.
According to drummer Steve Goulding, who has been manning the Mekons’ throne for over a quarter-century now, Ancient & Modern is concerned with “that last fading of one kind of way of life, and that descent into war…the end of the ninteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the whole Edwardian era. It’s supposed to convey that kind of atmosphere. Pretty much everything in all the songs is concerned with that era. It’s an era of prosperity and ease of living that was fading away and descending into chaos. The trade unions are rising and there’s war all over the world, all the old certainties are slipping away.” He adds laughingly of the band members, who are now in their 50s, “In our case, all the old chords are slipping away too.”
The Mekons, whose last album was 2007’s acoustic-based Natural, cloistered themselves away to come up with the tracks for Ancient & Modern. “We rented a cottage in Devon so we could be near where Tom lives,” says Goulding. “He came every day after work and we would sit around the living room and set up recording facilities and just bash away from morning till night. The actual lyrical ideas developed sort of in tandem, but they were refined over a period of months afterwards. Tom’s ‘I Fall Asleep,’ which is more of a Victorian parlor ballad, we did at the time. But stuff like ‘Space in Your Face,’ the lyrics were done a long time afterwards. I think we had a general idea of what we wanted it to be, but it became more specific after a while.”
Besides the determinedly anachronistic concept, one of the things about Ancient & Modern that differs from most of the Mekons’ output is that it’s their first album since 1986 to be released on their own, newly revived Sin Records imprint. The major impetus was apparently the downfall of their longtime label Touch & Go, but Goulding adds, “I think it was about time. Because nobody else wanted to put it out, which was kind of the position we were in for the first album I did with the Mekons, the Fear and Whiskey album, that was on Sin.” Of course, the label-hopping the band has done over the years—they’ve been on everything from Twin-Tone to A&M—has never kept them from the hitting the road to reach their rabid cult of camp followers. “We’ve got two tours coming up,” Goulding says, “we’ve got one over here and one in Europe. The one over here starts in San Francisco on September 30, where we play the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.” And the onset of middle age doesn’t seem to have dimmed the band’s appetite for action a bit. “We play in Philadelphia and in Brooklyn on the same day,” Goulding explains, “we do [Philly-based radio show] World Café in the afternoon and [New York club] The Bell House in the evening of October 7.”
Besides the support of a small-but-hardy coterie of fans, the continuing admiration of an overwhelming number of critics—including such high-placed tastemakers as Greil Marcus—has helped to keep the Mekons’ flame burning. Asked about the reason for music journalists’ perennial fascination with the band, Goulding offers, “Maybe it’s because we actually take trouble to try and make things about something. We have some good writers in the band that actually have something to say artistically. It’s like with Tom’s thing ‘I Fall Asleep,’ I think that’s beautiful, and it really does conjure up a certain sensibility. The images of the sea and the rooftops of London, that whole thing, it’s just very well written. You don’t hear stuff like that, people don’t really do that, because it’s not commercially successful, and we do it because we don’t care if we’re commercially successful or not. We’re kind of fatalistic about it, we don’t bother taking that into consideration, and I think that makes things a lot more interesting.”
No One Buys Our Records: A Q&A With Mekons
For more than three decades, Mekons have been a band that can do no wrong musically and no right commercially. Despite a hugely devoted fan base and respect from critics and peers, Mekons never caught on with the general public. In part, that’s because of their incredible stylistic diversity.
When you buy a Sonic Youth album, you know what you’re getting. A Mekons album could contain post-punk, folk, industrial electronic music or boisterous country-rock. But the exact thing that has kept them from becoming popular has also been a key reason they’ve been able to endure – they never chase trends and follow their muse wherever it takes them.
Their latest album, Ancient & Modern (out 9/27 on their own Sin Records), is a Mekons primer of sorts, with folk, country and rock all thrown into the mix. Lest you think they’re making it too easy for their fans, it also has a concept, comparing life 100 years ago to the world today. We talked with singers Jon Langford and Sally Timms.
Where did the concept for Ancient & Modern come from?
JL: Out of the communal swamp. I never really remember where anything generates. We liked the idea of looking at the modern world and the 100 years prior to that. We saw similarities from today to 1911, which was the calm before the storm of World War I.
ST: There was a shallow Edwardianism at that time, which was similar to how we feel about contemporary culture. It was a consumerist environment where people didn’t think or have to think about the consequences of things. Coming out of World War II, people had seen a great deal of loss.
I saw [British politician] Tony Benn talk in London. He was a member of the upper class, but he fought in World II. He talked about people who became socialist because of what they saw. Wealthy Westerners today don’t live through that, and middle class kids don’t have much concept either. Look at [British Prime Minister] David Cameron or George Bush. We have leaders now who have nothing at stake. They’ve lived lives of utter privilege. How can they make sensible decisions about governing society? We’re being failed by our politicians on a massive level.
How did you become interested in the pre-WWI era?
JL: There’s a song on our last album [“Natural”] called “Dickie, Chalkie and Nobby” that kind of touched on it. There seemed to be parallels between what happened then and what’s going on now. It’s almost Orwellian. People are oblivious to it. People are voting for the Republicans and sending their kids to die in wars without knowing what’s taking place. I defy anyone to explain why we’re in Iraq or Afghanistan.
ST: You can wander around England and see war memorials to people who died in Kandahar decades ago. Are we really destined to never learn from history or is it deliberate?
Do you want your album to make people think about these things?
JL: It’s not a conversation where music is somehow relevant. It’s obviously not relevant.
ST: No one buys our records. But even if no one really bought them, we wouldn’t make different records. This is what we have to do. We make records about what we’re thinking about. Does it make anyone change? Obviously not.
JL: We hope to be part of a conversation that hopefully still exists. But we’re basically powerless. I can march around Racine, Wisconsin, going door to door for Obama and feel like crap two years later when Guantanamo is still open and he’s escalating the drone campaign – or we can do this. We believe some sort of cultural production is important. Hopefully, it informs some kind of conversation, but I don’t have a lot of faith because they lid is on so tight.
The interesting thing about punk in 1977 is that the lid came off for about a year. No one knew what was happening, and that made us question what was going on. I’ve got teenage kids, and when I talk to them and their friends about issues that concern me they think I’m a paranoid loon. They don’t think there’s anything wrong with the world. They think corporations are benign. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but they think I’m Ted Kaczynski when I ask “Don’t you worry that Facebook is doing this or that?” or ‘Don’t you worry there are chips in your cell phone?”
A lot of the bands you came up with, such as Mission of Burma and Gang of Four, found belated success. Why do you think more people don’t know about Mekons?
ST: Because we’re not as good as them. (laughs)
JL: We’re much better at being obscure. They’re compromising their obscurity.
ST: We were never a cool band. There was always an element of somewhat jester-ish humor in our music. Gang of Four was a much more cool band, even though they were not any more serious than we are. Also, we didn’t split up.
JL: Gang of Four is famous for a sound they created on a couple of albums. We have different sounds on different records. Ours is way of working that can produce almost anything. That’s what’s interesting to me about the Mekons. … If you split up, that helps. We should have split up for 10 years and gotten back together. Maybe we can still do that.
ST: Except we’d be dead before there’s any interest in us reforming.
What did you think about the Revenge Of The Mekons documentary? It seems that other people think about your legacy more than you do.
ST: It’s weird when you watch something like that. We have done a lot of things. It’s interesting to see it. There are so many stories you could tell. The film becomes the thing filmmaker chooses to focus on, but there are a million possibilities within it.
JL: We trusted the director. I said, “Just make sure it’s not boring. I don’t care what’s in it. Just make sure it’s not some grim worthy tale of four people who wasted their lives struggling.” Really, it’s been a great time, really good fun. I’m not a miserable person. I have a good time all the time. (laughs)
All of you have other projects you work on. What’s special about the Mekons?
ST: It doesn’t compare to anything else I’ve done on an artistic level. When you’ve known people a really really long time and been through loads of things and actually like them, that’s a great thing. None of us dislike each other but stay in this because of the music.
JL: It’s the opposite of The Who when they’d hate each other and travel to gigs separately, but were in it for the paycheck. We all like sharing grubby rooms and hanging out.
ST: I don’t think any of us as individuals do anything as well as when we’re combined together. I don’t love everything we do, but some of best things I’ve ever done are as part of this band.
JL: I do lots of things, but there’s nothing I like as much as The Mekons.
It’s been so long since the uncompromising, indefatigable Mekons have released a record that many had suspected a quiet retirement. Ancient & Modern is worth the wait, however, at least for fans of the band. As might be implied by the title, the LP works in a variety of styles, everything from gentle balladry (“I Fall Asleep,” sung by Tom Greenlagh) to torch songs (“Geeshie,” “Ugly Bethesda,” crooned by Sally Timm) to noisy rock & roll (“Space in Your Face,” “Honey Bear,” sung by Jon Langford and Greenlagh). But the main musical thrust is a sort of exotic folk rock, mostly British in origin and supporting the usual provocative lyrical barbs, but with the flavors of every other musical spice the band has picked up in its nearly 35 years of existence. The odd but appealing “The Devil at Rest,” “Calling All Demons” and title cut slyly subvert the folk melodies and subject matter of old-time music, folding traditional elements into the band’s own distinctive sound. The result is one of the Mekons’ most enticing records, rewarding multiple spins and signaling a band still in the prime of its long life.
Merging 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.
Writing about the band in 1999, Luc Sante was forced to adopt what he described as a "eulogistic tone," when expressing, in some of the most moving lines of rock criticism ever written, what it was that made the band so important: "[The Mekons] have brought poetry, sexiness, and panache to the theme of getting by and making do, an adult theme if there ever was one and an appropriate development from the anti-glamour self-determination of 1977. Given that the prevailing myth these days concerns the effortless acquisition of insane wealth, with the corollary that anyone without money is dirt, those of us who are dirt and fated to remain that way can appreciate having a pop group to call our own, as a kind of home team." But despite Sante's lament for a band that had seemingly run its course, the Mekons came clawing back, digging deep into gospel and British-Isles folk to give us their masterful 2002 album Ooh! (Out of Our Heads), reimagining their own early catalogue for 2004's Punk Rock, and drawing on an eclectic mix of influences for 2007's Natural.
That diversity of inspiration and sureness of purpose is present on Ancient & Modern, the band's first offering in four years. The subtitle, 1911 – 2011, might slightly oversell the album's ambitions, but everything from singer Sally Timms's lounge act on "Geeshi," to the various folk, rock, and country influences that have been the group's bedrock during their 35-year career, to what sounds like a Halloween-style horror-film theme song fall effortlessly into place on the group's latest, which feels by turns modest and teeming with aspiration. This latter quality applies most significantly to the title track, an epic, seven-minute suite which features all three of the band's singers (Tom Greenhalgh, Timms, and Jon Langford) and begins with the abovementioned slasher-flick music and ends with an inspirational, defiant chant in which the group's members are joined by the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus.
Breakdown is the song's theme (the phrase is repeated over and over) and, to a degree, the album's as a whole. Though their lyrics have veered increasingly toward abstraction over their last two albums, the Mekons here turn their eye on a whole Western culture that ranges from the idyllic (cricket games, village greens) to the apocalyptic (the band's escalating interest in eschatological pronouncements) and registers a weariness and a resignation, but also the continued possibility of insubordination. "I was tempted to believe," howls Langford on "Space in Your Face," neatly encapsulating the band's negotiation of optimism and acquiescence.
Gone from the Mekons' concerns are the tangible cultural-political analyses that marked such classic tracks as 1989's "Amnesia" and 1991's "Funeral" and "Brutal." Instead, vague references to the "working class" and lines like "it's really just a story that's been sold" mingle with murky talk of "unimaginable hell[s]" and obscurely personal musings. It's a less enthralling, urgent approach to music-making than the band employed in their late-'80s/early-'90s heyday, and even on an 11-song album there's some excess fat (among great bands, the Mekons have probably made the smallest number of consistently great albums).
Still, for every largely dispensable song like "Ugly Bethesda" and "Honey Bear," Ancient & Modern counters with its share of outstanding cuts, whether fully achieved arrangements like "I Fall Asleep" (on which Greenhalgh's mournful voice rises heavenward over a bed of piano, while Susie Honeyman's fiddle adds the perfect counterpoint) or less ambitious triumphs like "Afar and Forlorn," which doesn't sound so far from an old-fashioned Mekons country-rock ballad. If Ancient & Modern can't stand up to the band's best efforts, it's more than a worthy addition to an imposing body of work.
Bei Ancient & Modern haben wir es mit dem neuesten Werk einer Band zu tun, deren Werdegang in der Musikgeschichte wohl bis heute einzigartig ist. Ihre Ursprünge gehen zurück in das Großbritannien des Jahres 1977, genau genommen an die University of Leeds. Aus einer dort ansässigen Gruppe Kunststudenten sollten sich in diesem Jahr zwei Bands formieren: Die heute weit bekannteren GANG OF FOUR und die hier vorgestellten MEKONS. Die Freundschaft zwischen den beiden ging so weit, dass die MEKONS ihr ganzes erstes Album auf den Instrumenten ihrer Kollegen einspielten. Das hatte vor allem den Grund, dass sie selbst keine Instrumente besaßen - folgerichtig waren sie erst recht keine Musiker. Ungeniert rotzte man dennoch in bester Punkmanier drauflos. Die erste Single „Never Been In A Riot“ (eine Antwort auf THE CLASH's „White Riot“) ist ein beeindruckendes Zeugnis dieser Unfähigkeit, Instrumente zu bedienen. Dessen ungeachtet gelten diese Single und vor allem das nachfolgende „Where Were You?“ als Post-Punk-Geheimtipp.
34 Jahre oder 25 Alben später – ja, Ancient & Modern ist bereits der 26te Longplayer der Briten – ist alles anders. Inzwischen leben die Bandmitglieder großteils in den USA, die Haare sind ergraut, man ist gesetzter geworden. Statt chaotischem Post-Punk verschreiben sich die MEKONS heutzutage ihrer ganz eigenen Interpretation des Alternative Country - „Insurgent Country“ nennen sie das, eine Bezeichnung, die vom Chicagoer Plattenlabel Bloodshot Records geprägt wurde.
Die Briten servieren uns hier einen geschmackvollen Cocktail aus englischer und amerikanischer Folklore, einer Prise Rock und einer fast schon unkenntlichen Note Post-Punk. Akustische Gitarren und Geigen prägen das Bild, hin und wieder dürfen es auch Klavier, Banjo, Bouzouki und Akkordeon sein. Eine zurückhaltende Rhythmusfraktion aus E-Bass und Schlagzeug hält das Gefüge zusammen. Die eigentliche Stärke des Albums sind indes die Gesangsparts von Rico Bell und Sally Timms – gerade bei Bell ist die Punk-Vergangenheit in der Stimme noch unmittelbar spürbar. Und weil das noch nicht genügt, holt man sich für den knapp 7-minütigen Titeltrack Verstärkung in Form von „Louis Wrench and the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus“, der dem Ganzen zusätzlich eine andächtige, beinahe feierliche Note verleiht.
Allerdings darf man sich von der starken Besetzung – wir haben es hier immerhin mit 9 Musikern zu tun – nicht täuschen lassen. Über weite Strecken lassen es die MEKONS ruhig angehen – spärliche Arrangements, angenehme, sofort ins Ohr gehende Melodien, gemäßigtes Tempo, aber viel Liebe zum Detail. Der folkige Wohlklang wird nur gelegentlich von etwas rockigeren Tracks unterbrochen („Space In Your Face“, „Calling All Demons“, „Honey Bear“). Macht nichts, die Zeit vergeht dennoch wie im Flug.
Wie viele ihrer (unmittelbar) vergangenen Alben ist auch Ancient & Modern ein Konzeptalbum. Der Untertitel „1911-2011“ deutet bereits darauf hin: Der Hörer wird mitgenommen auf eine Reise in das Großbritannien der Edward'schen Ära, eine Zeit, in der der Erste Weltkrieg noch bevorstand, als man mit gestreiftem Blazer oder Segeljacke den Fluss entlang schipperte, als die Sommernachmittage noch lang waren und man mit Picknickkorb und Hund auf die Dorfwiese spazierte. Während musikalisch romantische Nostalgie zelebriert wird, spannen die Briten lyrisch gekonnt einen Bogen in unsere Zeit und führen uns satirisch vor Augen, wie wenig sich die heutige Konsum- und Genussgesellschaft in ihrer Sorglosigkeit und Naivität von der damaligen unterscheidet.
FAZIT: Mit Ancient & Modern beweisen die MEKONS, dass auch nach 34 Jahren Bandgeschichte nicht Schluss sein muss. Ein kurzweiliges, sowohl musikalisch als auch textlich stimmiges Album einer Band, die so viel richtig macht, dass es verwundert, warum sie nie kommerziell erfolgreich war. Fans kaufen die Scheibe sowieso, für alle anderen ist sie sicherlich ein guter Ausgangspunkt, um sich durch die restlichen 25 Alben der Briten zu wühlen.
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 poe
ms 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.
From All Music Guide:
by Mark Deming (who gave 4 points out of 5)
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. And if the historical tone of some tracks suits a journey into the past, most of the time their message seems to have barely changed since "Never Been in A Riot." If there's a crucial difference in Ancient & Modern, it's a matter of craft; 2007's Natural found the Mekons stripping their music back to an elemental, acoustic core, and here they follow a similar path but with more ambitious and compelling results, as the slightly shambolic campfire songs give way to carefully constructed acoustic arrangements that are artful and evocative. For a band that's long made a virtue out of inspired amateurism, Ancient & Modern sounds like the group's most musically accomplished album to date in its own purposefully low-key manner. Tom Greenhalgh's always wobbly vocals are in better shape here than ever before, and Suzie Honeyman's fiddle and Rico Bell's accordion possess an elegance here that they've rarely been granted in the past, while Sally Timms and Jon Langford's vocals are, as usual, splendid. The Mekons have made their discontent more aestetically appealing on Ancient & Modern, but if their rage is more graceful, it's no less powerfully felt, and the intelligence and care that went into this album ultimately makes its dour message cut even deeper; it's the Mekons' most accomplished bit of record making in some time.
By Stephen Deusner
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.
It is, obviously, an ideal setting for a Mekons album. The veteran country/punk outfit is similarly transatlantic: Jon Langford and Sally Timms are both long-time Chicagoans, yet founding member Tom Greenhalgh still lives in Wales. Other members hail from New York and London, making them perhaps the most geographically dispersed band around. They may communicate via the internet and the telephone, but the Mekons owe their collaborative camaraderie to the transatlantic cable.
Without trying to imitate the music of the Edwardian Era outright, the band revisit those years in eleven new songs that were written and recorded during a rowdy couple of days in Wales. While the band has certainly multiplied its membership over the years, ballooning to a nearly double-digit roster, Ancient & Modern never sounds crowded. Langford and Greenhalgh remain the primaries, with Timms offering a strong female counterpart, and the rest of the band provide perfectly minimal, albeit surprisingly agile accompaniment that expands the band’s sound beyond its familiar borders. “I Fall Asleep” is a quiet hymn backed mainly by what sounds like an old church piano, which contrasts the sharp electric snarl of “Space in Your Face.” A showcase for Timms’ delicately expressive voice, “Ugly Bethesda” floats along on simple, ambient percussion and a spectral violin. Each song has its own musical personality, yet everything coheres into a fascinating and historically evocative whole.
With innumerable albums and 35 years behind them, the Mekons are old pros at this sort of thing, so the Edwardian setting of Ancient & Modern gives the band some strict parameters within which to works. It’s not a concept album per se, but an album with a concept, one that never succumbs to the kind of academic detachment that terms like “Edwardian” or “transatlantic” might signal. In fact, the band write mostly in character, which lends songs like “Geeshie” and “Arthur’s Angel” not only a wide-eyed specificity but also the urgency of a tense narrative. The people who inhabit “Warm Summer Sun” and “Ugly Besthesda” are facing dire circumstances—hard economic times, strict social and religious mores—that shouldn’t strike 21st-century listeners as unfamiliar.
As the title Ancient & Modern implies, these songs aren’t simply about the past, no matter how fascinating that piece of history may be. The Mekons see a bit of today reflected in these songs, which have implications beyond their setting. It is, ultimately and unsurprisingly, a deeply angry and contentious album, yet one that glories in the act of musical collaboration. It took a World War to bring the first Edwardian Era to a close. The Mekons sound like they’re having a blast pondering what it will take to end this second one.
The Mekons could not have known the extent to which they were singing about their own future when they covered Rod Stewart’s “You Wear It Well” in 1988. Back then, the Brits were on the upswing, ready to put a bit more rock in their country-punk hybrid and take it to the people via a contract with A&M. But these days, they could tell you plenty about getting back to work after day-job coffee breaks (one band member took my fact-checking phone call whilst working as a receptionist). Unlike Rod’s protagonist, they aren’t trying to rekindle any old flames, but they do seem to be making the best of diminished times. Ancient & Modern was recorded in 2009 -- 30 years after the release of the band’s first LP The Quality Of Mercy Is Not Strnen -- but spent some time in business limbo while the band sought a new label in the wake of Touch & Go Records’ sudden shutdown. Ultimately, the group resurrected Sin, the self-managed imprint through which they released many of their best records in the mid-’80s.
The album feels heavy with post-disaster sentiments, but they’re not especially tethered to the band’s own troubles. The Mekons have been smarter-than-average bards of opposition from the get-go, and the weight that burdens them is the knowledge that the battles they’ve fought their entire adults lives (most of The Mekons are in their 50s, and accordionist Eric Bellis is 65) have existed for centuries, aren’t going too well at the moment, and will be around after their demise. On “Calling All Demons,” they invoke the memory of John The Baptist, who paid for inconveniencing the powers that be of his day by ending up with his head on a tray; on “The Devil at Rest,” they mull the sour fortunes of the working class. Folk have always sung (or spoken) about the unjust travails of powerless people, and the Mekons are part of that tradition.
Ancient & Modern starts on a harrowing note. “Warm Summer Sun” paints a particularly English idyll involving toast and cricket, and then ponders its ruins. When the dudes with the button push it, everyone gets blown up, and when they throw their money down some well, we all get dragged along; you don’t have to read too many English or American (or Greek or Syrian) headlines to get the sense that the guys with their hands on the switches have really let us down. The Mekons tell the toll of a lifetime of thinking about such things on “I Fall Asleep.” Guitarist Tom Greenhalgh rides a London bus and wanders through a park, but can’t connect to the joy around him; “My barren thoughts chill me to the bone,” he confesses in a voice of infinite heartbreak. But carrying on as long as The Mekons brings the knowledge that despair is just another phase, and since the band contains several singers, you’ve got just the right voice to capture each sentiment. Greenhalgh may have wretchedness down cold, but Jon Langford sure doesn’t sound like he’s rolling over and playing dead for anyone as he barks his way through “Space In Your Face,” the record’s one rave-up. And the fine measure of anticipation that Sally Timms evokes on “Geeshie” makes a night of drinking and dancing sound like a major triumph.
Ancient & Modern‘s one sticking point is that, like 2007’s predecessor Natural, it’s a slow grower. The album’s amalgam of ‘round the piano sing-alongs, updated dub effects, Middle Eastern string sounds, and the occasional splintered guitar riff yields its share of pleasures, but the power of these songs lies more in settling into the scenes the lyrics paint and making connections between songs and across historical eras over multiple listens. But if that seems a little old fashioned, I don’t mind. They wear it well.
By Bill Meyer
By Douglas Wolk
A third of a century into their collaboration, Mekons have wandered so far down their own path that they don't seem to have much in common with anybody else anymore. They're an art-and-literature collective that happens to play music too, a small community who used to be punks together, a hydra whose three heads each sing in a different voice. They've also effectively become process artists. The ideas that shape their songs, and the means by which they create them, are the important part; the songs themselves are basically just documentation.
That makes latter-day albums like Ancient & Modern very interesting in a contemporary-art context, and occasionally tough-going in a putting-on-recordings-and-listening-to-them context. If you're waiting for them to write another "Where Were You?" or "Memphis, Egypt" or "Now We Have the Bomb", don't hold your breath; it's hard to imagine most of these songs being the kind of thing grouchy old guys at Mekons shows yell for. (Mekons shows are heavily populated by grouchy old guys.)
The ostensible concept behind this record is drawing parallels between the present day and 100 years ago. It's a concept that would be entirely opaque without the album's title-- although, of course, with their ties to the art world, Mekons know that titles can carry a lot of weight. Opacity, though, is a persistent problem on Ancient & Modern. A lot of its lyrics might as well have been assembled exquisite-corpse style: "Calling All Demons" wanders from "a reptile thinking its first thoughts" to the head of John the Baptist to "a fan-club meeting down the steps on Briggate" to "ice cream, eggs and bread," and so on. A couple of its lines seem to allude to Oscar Wilde, but that's the only point of coherence to someone who wasn't in the room when it was written.
Still, Mekons know when they've come up with a good phrase, and how to build an arrangement around it. On the title track, it's "I had a minor breakdown," repeated as a refrain while a tiny, four-note figure loops and loops; on Jon Langford's splenetic rocker "Space in Your Face", it's "I was tempted to believe," howled by an ensemble with someone's devotional humming behind them; on the old-timey strut "Geeshie", it's Sally Timms ending some lines with "while there's still time" and others with "try to still time." (That last appears to be a tribute to Geeshie Wiley, the mysterious singer-guitarist who recorded her haunting "Last Kind Word Blues" in 1930. Again, the title's the only explicit cue.)
The other thing Mekons have picked up from contemporary art practice is the principle that, once you've established your voice, you can keep doing variations on the same thing indefinitely. Their lineup has been fairly stable for a couple of decades now, and it's hard to imagine a band more comfortable with each other's playing than they are. When they feel like it, they can conjure moments of disarming beauty. ("I fall asleep when I should pray," Timms and Tom Greenhalgh repeat together-- she's clear-voiced and reserved, he's quavering and sardonic-- and then the song briefly dissolves into a dubbed-out froth of piano and violin before resuming.) When they don't, they still sound like no one but Mekons: prickly, jovial, boozy, resistant to the bourgeois pleasures of rhyme and tune but sometimes seduced by them anyway. For anyone who's not already a Mekons enthusiast, though, this has to be an alarmingly forbidding, cryptic piece of work.