Album review from msn

The Sex Pistols trashed as many of rock 'n' roll's traditions as they could, but they also forged a few. The one that's lasted longest is ambivalence about stardom. When punk turned into new wave (which then turned into The Knack), it was easy for the original punks to say they wanted to shun the brass ring. But eventually they got tired of playing to the same 800 people every time they played in a large city. The great ones, like The Clash, found ways to keep the feeling but broaden their base. The rest jettisoned punk as being anything but a fashion move; they turned into business people. The Mekons were the only original punk unit to make it into the form's second decade with their ideals intact and their vision clear.

They've had their ups and downs, peaking twice: once in the mid-'80s with a pair of thrilling country-tinged deliberations on their own Sin label (1985's Fear And Whiskey and 1986's The Edge Of The World) and again as the '80s collapsed into the '90s with another pair that brought them as close to mainstream rock 'n' roll as their outsider aesthetic would allow (1989's The Mekons Rock 'N' Roll and 1990's The Curse Of The Mekons). Punk has limped into its third decade (latest euphemism: alternative), and The Mekons limp along with it.

The bad news: United is a disaster. A 23-cut CD emphasizing their experimental side packed in a 199-page book that serves as the catalog for a Mekons art exhibit currently making the rounds, it feels like an exercise, albeit an expensive one. It's another one of the wiggly group's critiques of rock 'n' roll, but this time they neglect to present their critique in the form of recognizable rock 'n' roll. The Mekons excel at damning rock 'n' roll from the inside; when they try it from the outside, as they do for much of United's 71 uncharacteristically insular minutes, they can't make a dent. They're too busy trying to be artists.

The great news: There's another "new" Mekons set. After a decade-long disappearance (and it's not as if it was widely available upon initial release), The Edge Of The World is back, and it still rocks and ambles with resigned fury. But they're having too much fun being losers to try and change their predicament. "Ugly Band" (about themselves) is post-punk at its most untamed, and the mixture of rockers, country standards, and a sea shanty built around the line "We're not in the same boat at all" is still surprising, and still winning. It's easily as experimental as United and the risks are far greater. Who'd think a band that came up with the Gang Of Four could make country music that made hard-edged contemporaries Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam sound safe? It's a classic, and it costs less than one-third as much as United.

Jimmy Guterman

© 1996-97 Microsoft Corporation

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