Chicago alt-country legends join forces with a Nashville singer-songwriter for an album that delivers the best of both of those musical worlds.
Chicago’s Waco Brothers are a true force of nature onstage. One of Mekons great Jon Langford’s many side projects, they were a band born in the mid-'90s who developed a reputation for blending country heartbreak and hell-raising with a rebellious across the pond sensibility. After an almost ludicrously ambitious output of eight albums in their first decade, the Wacos have been quiet since 2005’s Freedom and Weep, with just one live album to tide over fans of their hell-raising honky-punk. For Great Chicago Fire, their first studio outing in over a half-decade, Jon Langford and his band brought in Nashville singer-songwriter and Bloodshot labelmate Paul Burch, a skilled songwriter known more for his thoughtful interpretation of roots style than any sort of haymaking anthems.
Such a paring seems like a great risk/great reward gamble for both musicians and fortunately for both the listener and the players it is the latter. Adding Burch does wonders for the Wacos, with his songwriting talent providing some lyrical depth and his pop instincts lending them dynamite hooks to be embellished, savored and otherwise exploited. With these foundations to build off of, the Waco Brothers show us what a great rock ‘n’ roll band looks likes, blasting out country rock barnburners, humorous character sketches and restrained ballads with equal dexterity. Langford and company seem to have dropped many of their more aggressively punk tendencies of past records to go for a more straightforward muscular bar rock sound here and it suits the songs perfectly. Burch’s Nashville twang also gives their rootsy sound some vocal authenticity that Jon Langford, bless his Welsh heart, simply cannot provide.
The record opens with few seconds of feedback and burbly bass which sound suspiciously like the beginning of a droning Yo La Tengo jam before Burch and Langford jump in with Sid Vicious’s famous sneering kiss off, "did you ever get the feeling that you’ve been cheated" and the band kicks rustily into life behind them for the title track. It’s rousing opening that sets the tone for the first half of the record. Clocking in next, "Give In" perhaps best showcases the mixture of Burch’s songwriting acumen melded with the Chicago band’s anarchic rock approach. Burch writes with humor and wit, singing "I’m like the rusty gate on your front yard / hangin’ on by one hinge / sooner or later if you swing too hard / you know I’m gonna give in." This leads into a crashing chorus with the rest of the band joining him, creating an irresistible hook that has a first time listener singing along by the time that opening line reappears at the end of the song. "The Wrong Side of Love" completes a devastating opening trio of unshakeabley punchy rock with a songs with Burch singing about choosing a get out of jail free card over his sweetheart, all classic stuff.
The rest of the album sees Burch stretching the band in terms of stylistic curveballs and the Wacos stretching him in terms of energy and volume. "My Flight to Spain" gives the band a slow spotlight, accenting Burch with weepy pedal steel and soft tremolo as he imagines a country full of Romantic imagery straight out of history books and Hemingway novels. The southerner then takes them to their most rustic extreme with the Appalachian shuffle of "Up on the Mountain" which sees Langford singing in the closest thing to a genuine country twang as you’re likely to get from him. Burch also shines in numbers like the clever character sketch "Someone That You Used to Know". There are no overarching themes to be had here beyond the standard tropes of life, love and the open road, but Burch and the band navigate them expertly. The jumps from delivering romantic ultimatums in the wine-soaked pop of "Monterey" to painfully longing for more in "Transfusion Blues" to sweet secret promises in "On the Sly" without missing a beat.
On the closer, the Waco Brothers and Burch turn Dylan’s adenoidal indictment of society, "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall" into a stomping barroom singalong. Everyone sounds like they’re having more fun than should be legally allowed with Burch and Langford trading verses and the rest of the band joining in raggedly on the choruses while bounces and stumbles forward, a beautifully raucous mess. It’s the perfect summation for this collaboration. They’re taking a brilliant-but-stodgy American folk classic, getting it drunk and taking it for a gleeful joyride. It’s powerful without being self-serious, reverential but innovative and undeniably invigorating. Great Chicago Fire is the sound of a group of men who grateful to be working together, happy to be playing their favorite style of music and unable to contain their excitement. Fortunately for us, they didn’t try.