Jon Langford: Gold Brick

[8 March 2006]

By Stephen Haag

Over the past 30 (thirty!) years, Jon Langford has (probably—who has the time to count?) released more albums, in more band incarnations, than anyone this side of Robert Pollard (and with a much higher quality-control level than Bob, to boot). Give Langford a long weekend and he’ll craft an acerbic, insightful, passionate rock record. So it’s a little hard to believe that Gold Brick is only Langford’s fourth proper solo record, but that said, it’s his most complete, fully realized, and best solo record to date.

In fact, Gold Brick approaches the rarefied air of such Langford classics as the Mekons’ Fear and Whiskey or the Waco Brothers’ To the Last Dead Cowboy... despite sounding nothing like those alt-country touchstones. The first hint that Gold Brick isn’t a typical Langford alt-country exercise is that the record’s not being released by Bloodshot, the label with which Langford has been closely identified for the past decade or so. Instead, Gold Brick is on ROIR, the label that released a Mekons live record back in the mid-‘80s. With the label change comes a sonic change: his fiery alt-country guitar dust-ups have been tempered with lush violins, pianos, and keyboards. But if this review gets a little lyrics-intensive, it’s only because Langford has taken such obvious care in creating songs that have something important to say, and I’d be remiss in not drawing from them. That’s no knock on the musicians who back Langford here; they may not burn the barn down, a la the Wacos or the Mekons, but they know the right places to rock out (“Little Bit of Help”, “All Roads Lead Back to Me”), and when to get introspective (“Invisible Man”, “Tall Ships”). This may be Langford’s least-rocking album in ages, but it’s hardly shoegaze. While such a move might indicate a slowing-down on the part of a musician, Langford is as feisty as ever, grappling with one of his favorite topics: the state of modern America.

A Welshman, Langford has a morbid fascination with his adopted homeland (these days, he’s in Chicago when he’s not on the road supporting any number of musical/artistic endeavors). He loves the idea—the promise—of America, but he’s appalled by the culture’s consumerism, cannibalizing tendencies, complacency, and the ever-growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. If that makes Langford a lefty crank, well, maybe he is, but he’s a lefty crank who couches his opinion in memorable, well-crafted tunes.

From the opening lines of leadoff track “Little Bit of Help”—“Little bit of help now wouldn’t / Hurt the fall into inertia / One life this life must now come first / Programmed for survival”—Langford is on message, tackling complacency and, to these ears, those who are more concerned with entrance into Heaven than fixing the problems here on Earth. These are Big Issues, and Langford explores them nimbly.

That notion of post-millennial displacement appears again and again on Gold Brick. The hard-luck, have-not narrator of “Workingman’s Palace” (that is to say, the neighborhood bar) wonders aloud “Everyone’s feeling strange about their lives / And who’s to blame / Trying not to sink under the challenge”, and can’t even catch a break in his own palace—the jukebox there is broken. Meanwhile, “Buy It Now” decries consumer culture: “Before you know / Everything you own / With wither like the petals on a flower / That’s growing up wrong”. And Langford’s take on modern ennui, from the title track, is the stuff of David Foster Wallace short stories, paired with a sweeping string section (yes, that’s a cliché, maybe that’s the point): “You leave your home but / You never leave home / Drive for miles in the car on your own / For gratification and participation / That feels so good”.

Sure, people have been lost, metaphorically and literally, in America ever since Columbus thought he landed in the Indies (as Langford notes on the album’s closer, “Lost in America”). But it hasn’t always been this way. Gold Brick‘s title track is only half the album’s centerpiece; the other half is a perfectly chosen, perfectly executed cover of Procol Harum’s 1969 masterpiece, “Salty Dog”. In the tune, weary, seasick explorers weep tears of joy when they finally hit land that they were never sure they’d hit, backed by a lush string section (here: heroic, not cliché/ironic). Langford’s point? These days, we’re coddled and inundated with information and overmedicated and everything else. Langford’s not advocating a return to the high seas when he covers “Salty Dog”; rather, he’s recalling a time of genuine awe and wonder, not to mention self-reliance.

For all the cynicism of Gold Brick, Langford isn’t merely finger pointing. He offers a solution to our problems on the closing track, “Lost in America”, when he suggests “Don’t be so stubborn and so proud / I am bloodied and unbowed / I have turned the signposts round / So ask me for directions / There’s no pie in the sky / It’s down here where you find it”.  Recorded for National Public Radio’s This American Life, the tune is as epic as “Salty Dog”, but it more rollicking than most of the album—a welcome, upbeat coda. Bloodied but unbowed, indeed.

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