Steve Wilson. On music.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Thus begins the Top 25 for 2010 Countdown!

Welcome to the top 25 for 2010 Countdown! Each day we'll countdown, starting with (yup, you guessed it!) number 25 and culminating with our (okay, my) numero uno album of the year. When they're handy I'll borrow my earlier reviews from the KC Free Press, as I have in this case. In the event one of my top 25 selections isn't something I've reviewed previously I'll dash off a new review.

I welcome all comments, criticisms, questions and dialog in general.

Jon Langford and Skull Orchard – Old Devils (Bloodshot)
“Jon Langford has quietly put together one of rock’s great resumes”
Jon Langford’s thirty year plus career has produced upward of forty records between his solo work and his various bands. A founding member of one of the most enduring groups of the last three decades, the Mekons, Langford also records as or with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, the Three Johns and the Waco Brothers.

His output is consistently satisfying, sometimes stunning. Langford’s painting and visual art production is also striking and prolific. His new record may be called Old Devils, but it’s clear that Langford’s hands are rarely idle.

The Mekons began life as a punk band, but by 1985’s Fear and Whiskey they began to incorporate American country influences into their sound. As fellow Mekon Tom Greenhalgh put it “the difference between the three chords of country and the three chords of punk became blurred.” Thus a gang of Brits who met in Leeds became seminal figures in the American alt-country movement. Among several brilliant recordings the Mekons’ 1989 release Rock n’ Roll is especially commanding.

Old Devils, recorded with Skull Orchard, which includes some of Langford’s Waco Bros. sidekicks, shows that Langford isn’t loosing any steam. Its’ combination of busker punk and country licks is fresh throughout. Like Billy Bragg, Langford is modest and vernacular as a singer, but like Bragg he’s dauntless with his material. Imagine a Welsh Johnny Cash who’s digested the critical theory of Terry Eagleton and the historical works of E.P. Thompson. Langford’s learned, but he’s not pretentious. His analytical eye is sharp and he keeps his emotions in his hip pocket. Like a true artist he invites you to perceive things from his perspective; he doesn’t tell you what to think.

“1234 Ever” establishes Langford’s distinct combination of styles. While country is at play, here the sound is closer to the sagebrush exoticism of Giant Sand and Thin White Rope than Jason and the Scorchers. “Book of Your Life” is for Langford a straightforward lament (“wish it was me in the book of your life”), but his intellectual proclivities are never far behind (“laws of physics abandoned to produce a happy ending”). Here his singing reminds at once of Joe Strummer and Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker. “Getting Used to Uselessness” is a catchy Social Distortion goes to college number, climaxed by Jim Elkington’s searching guitar solo.

“Pieces of the Past” is just your average rock ditty about slavery and man’s inhumanity. Prefaced by Andre William’s leering recitative (“Captain Henry Morgan was a very, very bad man”), Langford describes Bristol’s streets “paved in gold and blood;” it’s a chilling, evocative song that suggests and approaches Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.” “Haunted” vibrates with self-recognition – the New Orleans horns complementing Langford’s delivery, oddly suggesting the Libertine’s Carl Barat. The title track, perhaps loosely inspired by Kingsley Amis’s novel of the same name,” finds Langford confessing “I believe without reason there’s nothing to belief in anymore” as strings redolent of Van Morrison’s Caledonia Soul period provide counterpoint.

Old Devils is quintessential Jon Langford. Literate, sharply observed lyrics of both a personal and sociological nature paired with his seamless blend of punk, country and other idioms. If you’re not already a fan, Old Devils is a really fine record and not a bad place to start getting acquainted with Langford’s work.
Reverberating: 8.7