It is oddly fitting that in this world of fractured genres, one man is called upon to support an entire scene. Welsh-born resident alien Jon Langford, whose band the Mekons helped define what the '80s underground was all about (besides being among the first to venture into the now-well-populated cowpunk fields), has now lent what he admits are "older, stockier" shoulders to supporting the Chicago alt-country scene.
The Bloodshot Records catalogue would be sorely impoverished without Jon Langford's contributions: the Waco Brothers, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, the anti-death penalty compilation Executioner's Last Songs. With his latest, Mayors Of The Moon, he's teamed up with the Sadies, who are described by the label (sorry folks, but I couldn't best this) as "Toronto's fleet-fingered psychedelic, surf country spaghetti-westerners".
Hands that play surf music must be nimble and slender, capable of flying over the strings in a flurry of feints and well timed sustains. What's interesting on this album is that the virtuosity on display in this kind of music is slowed down and restrained, so as to be almost imperceptible to the untrained ear. There's a lot of reverb and echo, but there's also a fair amount of good old-fashioned honky-tonk twang. Alt-country insiders are sure to find this album a genre-bender; those of us whose tastes are a little more catholic may not necessarily find anything revolutionary.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, though: many a purely experimental formula falls flat, making a good argument for the tried and true. With this somewhat cautious but nonetheless unique genred mixture, Langford's rough-hewn tunesmithery stands out in sharp relief, with interestingly mixed results.
The husky quality of his voice works really well on upbeat numbers like "Drugstore", but on others, such as the classic condemned-man number "Little Vampires", you sometimes want to hear him nail home all the notes in the beautiful melody. The Sadies' playing is often so reverb-heavy that it sounds like a wash. Sometimes I love hearing their guitar and vibes stream over Langford's gravel and bark and at other times their smoothness and virtuosity just makes Langford sound like an oaf. Not that Langford wasn't aware of this risk: he's admitted in public that if he wanted to make himself sound older and clumsier than he actually was, the Sadies couldn't be a better choice.
You've got to admire guts like that. The virtue of this album is not so much that it produced breathtakingly unexpected music. Rather, it is a genuine collaboration, warts and all, and as such a blueprint for what experimentation should really be all about: feeling something out, hitting and missing, seeing what happens.
I almost overlooked the Sadies' excellent sense of rhythm, as it demonstrates to the tuned ear the kind of virtuosity that displays itself in subtlety. "Up to My Neck in This" showcases the drums in the introduction, which got me listening for other percussive moments, such as the shaker on "Drugstore", or the rollicking up-tempo "Last King of the Road". Truly the man listed only as "Critter" on the liner notes (a Muppets reference?) has a fine ear and a light touch.
That's what's going on musically; what's far more interesting to me is the atmosphere the album creates lyrically. I've read that Langford found the recent 25th anniversary Mekons tour (for which the Sadies were the backing band) "grueling". Mayors Of The Moon, from its title to its last track ("Are You An Entertainer") both mourns and celebrates the road, with all its alienations and chance alliances. Over and over, the singing voice yearns for a relief to his loneliness, only to find it elusive or unsatisfying.
On "Drugstore" (the leadoff and my personal favorite), Langford sums up male/female relations in one wise couplet: "I was born to build this wall / So you could tear the whole thing down". There's all kinds of alienation here: between men and women, among friends ("I'll put on an iron shirt / And walk out of the city / Back to the ones I love / The ones that won't desert me"), between celebrity and public ("Looking Good for Radio"). Mayors Of The Moon is all about living light years away from home and hearth, both physically and emotionally: on the title track Langford sings that all the Mayor needs is "a place to hide / And green grass on the dark side".
What makes Langford's alienation more richly textured than most who tackle this universal theme is the inevitability and almost tenderness with which he portrays it. On "Little Vampires" he sings, "I love you but I see / Love has limits and boundaries". Loneliness is part of the human condition, part of the odd bargain we make with our fellow humans in order to get along.
Most haunting in this regard is the duet with longtime friend and Mekon Sally Timms on "Shipwreck". Timms' celestially high voice weaves silver strands through the Sadies' reverb/vibe wash and Langford's gravel. The lyrics, ironically enough, are not about shipwreck as calamity but as a deliberate act of self-preservation: "Woke up into a sweeping storm / The tiller in my hand now / And drove this ship upon the rocks / Trying to reach dry land".
How fitting for a man from the seafaring isles who has found himself a home in the prairie.