Jon Langford and Kat Ex, veterans of two of the longest-running punk bands in existence, team up for this scorching collaboration. KatJonBand is not as great as either the Mekons or the Ex at their peak, but it is fiercer, rawer, and more jittery than almost anything else passing for punk these days.
How did this happen? It turns out that Langford and Ex have been within each other’s orbits for decades, starting in the late 1970s when Langford met Terrie Ex in Amsterdam. Langford has produced or co-produced a handful of Ex albums, including Tumult (1983), Aural Guerrilla (1988) and the Dead Fish EP (1990). The Mekons recorded a split single with the Ex in 1990, with Langford’s outfit covering the Ex’s “Crap Rap” and the Ex answering with their take on “Keep on Hoppin’”. Langford has played drums, banjo, or guitar on any number of Ex records. Kat Ex once backed up the Three Johns when their drum machine broke.
The two bands never sounded especially like one another, but you could infer a commonality. They shared, obviously, a certain confrontational approach to politics and a willingness to break rules. The Ex toyed with ethnic sounds like Turkish and, especially, African music during the 1990s. The Mekons looked to country. Punk purism held no interest for either band. And more than that, they seemed to like each other. When the Ex celebrated 25 years of punk rock in 2004, Langford MC’d the show. He’d thought he’d be playing a set with them, but when he arrived in Amsterdam, no one knew any of his songs. Kat Ex offered to accompany him on drums. It went well enough that the two played a handful of shows together over the next couple of years and began recording in Chicago in 2006.
This is not a partnership that has had a long time to simmer. Rather than a melding of their two styles, you get more of an unsettled juxtaposition. Langford’s muttered satires are jacked up on Ex-ish boxy beats. Kat subordinates her close-cropped vocal attack to a sweetened country chorus. Their collaboration is a give and take, an advance and retreat, that is more like a fencing match than a waltz, but that just makes it more exciting.
Consider, for instance, the leadoff track, “Do You”, its bristly, short-sharp guitar slashing in and out, the 16th-note rush of snare and tom pushing headlong forward. The two trade vocals in abbreviated bursts, Kat Ex chanting “I love it… Do you… I’ll leave it… when I’m through” and Langford echoing each phrase. They only sing in unison near the end, and it more like two metal blades clashing together than anything else.
“Machine Gun & the Ugly Doll” rides the same manic shuffle, the same dissonant stabs of guitar, overblighted surrealities, only a dream-like “ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh” providing solace. Darkness and paranoia pervade the verses here. We glimpse an 18-year-old skinhead in a tough situation and routine search that ends in mayhem, yet pause only briefly to gawk. You simply can’t remain in one place with the drum beat galloping on.
The tension of difference is what makes these cuts so compelling. “Conquered” starts with a Langford-style country blues riff, a deep, florid singing style. There’s a crispness to the drumming, to be sure, but the whole thing might easily be Langford solo or even the Mekons. Yet about halfway through, you realize that Ex is singing about politics, while Langford is describing personal relationships. They’re in the same song, sharing the same metaphors, yet they couldn’t be more separated.
Langford slips a couple of traditional songs into the mix. The first is a rather lovely funeral tune called “Albion”, which, despite its smattering of dissonant guitar chords and (Ex’s) drum rolls, could easily be a latter-day Mekons song. The second, not as pretty but a great deal more interesting, is “Red Flag”, a frantic, percussion-pushed rush into communal solidarity and leftie politics. It’s a full shot of adrenaline, hurtling headlong on close-muted guitar chords and machine-gun rhythms, restrained in its way, but always ready to flare into chaos. It doesn’t sound the least bit traditional, but it does seem like the exact halfway point between the Mekons and the Ex. No coincidence, then, that it also sounds like it’s about to burst into flame.