The first thing you learn upon moving to Chicago: this is Langford's town. The raspy-voiced Welshman, most famous for his work in the seminal punk band the Mekons, seems omnipresent in the City of Big Shoulders.
He's not a bad figurehead for Chicago, really. An immigrant, Langford is cutting-edge but rooted in tradition, working class but cosmopolitan, tough as steel but sensitive and creative, and a family man who's retained a healthy love for loud music and cheap beer. In short, he's Chicago through and through. Anyone requiring proof can open up The Chicago Reader on any given Thursday and probably find a notice for another show by his most active band, the Waco Brothers, and it's hard to ignore the seemingly endless stream of Langford-related releases pumped out by his Chicago label, Bloodshot Records -- whether they're by the Waco Brothers, by Langford and fellow Mekon Sally Timms, by his country tribute act the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, or something from left-field like his Mayors of the Moon with the Sadies, or Executioner's Last Songs, an anti-death-penalty benefit he put together with a whole bevy of like-minded friends. And while you'd think he might be satisfied with being revered as an underground rocker (Lester Bangs worshipped the Mekons), respected as an activist, and admired as an elder-statesman by the city's legions of indie rockers, punk rockers, and aspiring alt-country songsters, on top of all these accomplishments he's made significant headway as a visual artist, and his eerie, accomplished paintings of blindfolded cowboys and skeletal country singers have shown all over the city, the country, and the world.
His latest release, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds, is a worthy addition to his musical catalog. Billed as a concept album tracing the rise and fall of an aspiring honky-tonker (Lofty Deeds) whose own career echoes the glory and depravity of the USA, the "concept album" tag should be taken with a grain of salt. A couple of songs relate directly to the Lofty Deeds story, but most could be on any of his records, and there's also two covers -- one a live track -- and two revamps of older Langford compositions: an up-tempo country version of the formerly dub-reggae "Nashville Radio", and a piano-and-guitar-driven remake of his great kiss-off "Over the Cliff" ("success on someone else's terms don't mean a fuckin' thing").
If this sounds like a random collection of all things Langford held together by a loose concept -- well, that's about what it is, and it's pretty great. Lofty Deeds features some of his sharpest, most biting lyrics, with his impassioned vocals at the top of the mix, and our times demand the kind of incisive political commentary Langford provides so well. To a bluesy hillbilly backing of dobros, accordions, mandolins, and guitars, Langford brings an outsider's sharp perspective to America, with the Lofty Deeds story surfacing occasionally as an anchor.
It does start out like a concept album, with Langford intoning ominously "You are yourself at the center of the story / Your fate falls through your hands" over an aggressive slide guitar. The song, "Last Fair Deal Gone Down", takes its title from a traditional bluegrass number, but is all Langford from start to finish, detailing Lofty's disillusionments on his rise to fame ("You have your reasons to believe in people / But people aren't all the same").
If there's a strict narrative, though, I lose it soon after, and more than anything the record comes across as a sort of "State of the Union" address by an aging punk-rocker from Wales. This could be abysmal, of course, but Langford is able to write political songs with just the right mix of abstract poetics and social commentary, avoiding both strident propaganda and wishy-wash abstractions (plus his Welsh accent, with the best rolled r's this side of John Lydon, doesn't hurt; he could sound lyrical singing the UN Charter). On "Constanz", a honky-tonk number to which he brings the necessary optimism of a lifetime leftist, he reminds us that "The country is not stupid / Even though it's silent / It still has eyes and ears / It just can't find its mouth". Later, on "The Country Is Young", he compares America to a toddler still finding its feet, still imagining itself as the center of the cosmos.
The two remakes are nice to have, since both were previously hard to find, with "Nashville Radio" available on an EP and "Over the Cliff" on one of Bloodshot's stellar compilations. "Nashville Radio" is yet another tribute to country music's tragic martyr and resident genius, Hank Williams, but powerful and distinctive in that it's sung from the point of view of Hank himself. Here, presumably, it could apply also to Lofty Deeds, but as a tribute to Hank all the specifics are there, and it's a stunning success. "They threw me off of the Grand Ole Opry / 'Cause I couldn't behave / Never knew how many friends I had / 'Til I was lying in a cold dark grave". It's a damn good summary of the fall of one of popular music's greatest stars.
There's a particularly powerful verse towards the end of the song -- a little heavy-handed, perhaps, but the subject needs passion, not subtlety -- with Langford-as-Hank crying, "I gave my life to country music / Took my pills and lost / Now they don't play my songs on the radio / It's like I never was". It's a strange irony of fate, the champions authentic country music has found since it was buried under a deluge of exposed navels, pitch-corrected vocals, and a distinctly middle-class mentality. From Jack White to Rick Rubin to Norah Jones, people from all across the musical spectrum have been recognizing the worth of this quintessentially American form, and the best of them, like Jon Langford, have found ways to take a classic, traditional idiom and invest it with their own personality. Cheers to Jon Langford for bringing his weird, articulate, impassioned self to Chicago, and into the fray.