It’s hard to keep up with Jon Langford, what with membership in the Mekons, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, the Three Johns and the Waco Brothers (not to mention a solo career and a sideline gig as a folk artist—that’s his art on the cover of Freedom and Weep). He never gets complacent and he never gets redundant. He also does his best work when he’s outraged by the goings-on in the world; fortunately—for his music, at least—there’s no short of material here in 21st century America to raise Langford’s hackles and inform the latest and greatest from the Waco Brothers, Freedom and Weep.
Of course, the Wacos are a democracy; it’s not the Jon Langford show (after all, would the Left-leaning Langford have it any other way?). Also in the Brotherhood are singer/guitarist Dean Schlabowske, drummer Steve Goulding, bassist Alan Doughty, steel guitarist Mark Durante and singer/mandolinist Tracy Dear; together they comprise the steadiest, most consistent and just plain rollickin’ alt-country outfit of the past decade.
Freedom and Weep, as with the entire Waco discography, is a hoot to blare while drive down an open stretch of road. The full list of rocking moments on this album would be too long to compile, but Schlabowske, the everyman Yin to Langford’s firebrand Yang, kicks off the album with the barroom stomper “Nothing at All”, and his solo on the darker-than-usual-for-the-band “Secrets” is a standout on the disc. Meanwhile, Langford’s “Drinkin’ & Cheatin’ & Death” may not scale the Hot Nashville-vilifying heights of his earlier “Death of Country Music” (off 1997’s Cowboy in Flames), but the sentiment is strong (“Country radio lost its bottle/ Started selling a fantasy/ No drinkin’, no killin’ and the only D.I.V.O.R.C.E./ Is from reality/ From history”) and to these ears, hearing Langford trill his “rrrrr”‘s means there’s still hope in the world.
Politics are as important to the Wacos as the riffs; really, it’s a case of a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down. Having already painted an unflattering picture of a certain current American president on 2003’s New Deal with “The Lie”, but not getting the change in the White House they were angling for, part of me figured the Wacos would devote this entire new album to calling out Dubya further (that said, even done well, it would have been a wearying disc). Instead, only two songs allude to the president, and he’s never mentioned by name: “Chosen One”, where Langford snarls in his Welsh accent, “Dumb Boy the Patriot/ One day you’ll run out of luck”, and “The Rest of the World”, where Schlabowske sings, “The champagne’s still on ice/ Might as well down it tonight/ It ain’t gonna wait four more years/ Nor will your rights.” Come to think of it, these two tunes sum up Langford and Schlabowske’s songwriting tacks: political and personal (with a dash of booze), respectively.
And lest I not mention everyone, other Wacos sing! Tracy Dear contributes two songs—“Come a Long Long Way” and the life-on-the-road tune “Fantasy”—that are a little slower than Langford and Schlabowske’s offerings. Call them the only two chances to catch your breath during the album. And Mark Durante sings the hopeful, we’re-all-in-this-mess-together closing track, “Join the Club”. After spending most of Freedom and Weep chronicling the ways in which everyone is separated from each other, it’s nice to hear a call for unity, even if it goes “If you’re sick of being treated like dirt/ Sick of being hurt/ Join the club.”
Freedom and Weep is, in the best sense of the phrase, more of the same from the Wacos. Yes, they’ve been documenting the same social ills—the plight of the worker, the stupidity/duplicity of world leaders, the woeful state of country music and how hard life on the road is (though I can’t sympathize/empathize with that one)—over the course of seven albums, starting with 1995’s To the Last Dead Cowboy. And while some would call that a 10-year rut, or even worse, shoveling shit against the tide—after all, has anything changed for the better during the Wacos run?—I say they’re still at the top of their game. People are lazy and forgetful and need rabblerousers like the Waco Brothers to come around every two years or so with a fresh batch of songs and reminders that there’s still a lot of work to do to improve our world.