By Bill Wyman
Sally Timms' solo album, To the Land of Milk and Honey, begins with a classic bit of world-weary torch singing: "Round up the usual suspects/ Somebody has broke my heart again." The mix of languor and humor, delivered by her remarkable and expressive voice, set the tone nicely for the striking collection of original and covers that follow. The record is the first of Timms' solo work to be released in America.
Timms' voice is of course also one of the most beloved features of the Mekons, the onetime British punk band whose geographic center of gravity has shifted in recent years to Chicago. While co-founder Tom Greenhalgh still lives in Britain, his partner Jon Langford now resides here with his wife, as does former drummer Steve Goulding. Timms, who lives in New York with her husband, made the record here with Langford and a host of other Chicago musicians, notably Kingsize studio owner Dave Trumfio, who helped produce the album, played bass, and contributed a song. (Langford, Goulding, and Trumfio, along with Poi Dog Pondering's Dave Crawford, backed Timms when she played a rare U.S. date at Chicago's Double Door this past May.)
Timms' conversation, delivered in an caustic English drawl, is a challenging mixture of sarcasm ("Those little tunes I'd been writing; I had to share them with everyone,") seriousness ("I don't believe in using irony. What's the point? Then it's just a joke record,") self-deprecation ("I'm the laziest woman in any business,") sharp ripostes to questions on subjects deemed boring ("Great. Fas-cin-a-ting,") and wild stories of the touring Mekons sliding across America on a slick of alcohol and vomit. She grew up outside of Leeds; as a child she sang in the church and school choirs but soon had her head turned around, first by glam ("David Bowie was my ultimate hero") and then by punk. "I remember going into W.H. Smith. They printed the chart listing every week, and there'd be a big gap where number one was, because it was [the Sex Pistols' banned] "God Save the Queen."
Having met the Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley she got involved in the punk scene and intermittently did musical projects. These included a collaboration with Shelley ("It's a drug record, basically, a punk drug record") called Hangahar, a country-flavored group with violin and accordion, and an all-female outfit called the Shee Hees ("It was all experimental, no structure. We did Lionel Ritchie songs. Our show stopper was 'Hello.' We were riot grannies.")
Amidst a classic series of Mekons albums, she put out a solo record, Somebody's Rocking My Dreamboat, in 1988 that never saw American release. For her second effort she acknowledges wanting to make a "classic sounding record." The songs she chose which include surprisingly compelling tracks from John Cale, Jackie DeShannon, and Procul Harum, as well as four terrific new Timms-Langford numbers take on political and personal issues but with a grace and perspective that stands apart from the self-obsessiveness of the alternative age. "I don't have any sexual demons," she says. "I never had a problem getting a boyfriend. I don't know if I set my standards too low, but a lot of the kind of problematic [themes] that lot of younger women have don't seem to effect me so much."
Instead, she uses her alluring and powerful vocals "I have a very smooth-sounding voice, a Julie Andrews voice, basically" to animate socio-political themes: the outsiders in Procul Harum's "Homburg" and Trumfio's "Junk Barge," and the caustic commentary in the closing "Deep" ("You're too nice to say a thing/ As they hold your head under.") The Mekons took punk's ideals to heart and, like exactly none of their contemporaries, never lost them. Nearly twenty years on, band members have the empty pockets to prove it. Their career, and Timms' new album, are reminders that punk was something other than a musical form. "We don't try to build up a mystique," Timms says seriously. "People view us as their friends, not rock idols. That's our legacy from punk, that it could be anyone up there, and you shouldn't distance yourself too much."Reprinted with permission from the Chicago Reader's Music Section.