Isn’t there some anecdote about three blindfolded people in a room with an elephant? They all feel a different part of the animal — ear, trunk, leg — and become convinced that there are three strange beasts in the room with them, the odds of such diverse characteristics belonging to one animal seemingly impossible. Or something like that. This fuzzy recollection was brought to you by Heaven and Hell, Cooking Vinyl’s two-disc attempt to pin down the Mekons, one of rock’s busiest, most adventurous acts. It’s a daunting task — the band has been around since 1977, and celebrated their 27th anniversary earlier this year by releasing Punk Rock, their 20th (or so, depending on who you ask) album. As a primer, Heaven and Hell is a good place for a newbie Mekons fan to begin feeling the elephant, so to speak.
Often, a band retrospective runs in chronological order, giving listeners a crash course in the band’s maturity and evolution. That’s not the case with Heaven and Hell. In fact, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the track selections or sequencing (nor do the disc designations Heaven and Hell hold special thematic meaning). But don’t dismay. Accept this disorientation as indicative of the breadth of the Mekons’ career. Heaven‘s first five tracks were originally released in 1985, 1988, 1978, 1986 and 1993, and are proto alt-country (“Hard to Be Human”), ethereal dream pop (“Ghosts of American Astronauts”), working class punk (“Where Were You?”), dark fuzzed-out folk (“Hello Cruel World”) and polished modern rock (“Millionaire”), respectively. The Mekons’ career blueprint would not be any clearer had the tracks been arranged sequentially. The above five songs don’t even comprise every style the Mekons have tackled, but Heaven and Hell managed at least one track from every era (if not every album).
As a fan who knows the band primarily for their mid-’80s alt-country albums (1985’s Fear and Whiskey holds a dear place in my heart), I was intrigued to hear the early ’80s songs that preceded them. Damned if they weren’t a cockeyed New Wave/noise rock band, as the insistent thrum and passionless vocals of 1980’s “Snow” and 1982’s “He Beat Up His Boyfriend” attest. One could even dance to the funky bassline of 1983’s “(A Dancing Master Such As) Mr. Confess”.
And is there another band birthed in 1977 that remains vital and active here in the 21st century? Heaven and Hell‘s most recent cuts portray a band with no dip in quality and one that still manages not to repeat itself, 27 years into its journey. There’s the reggae tinge of 2000’s “Neglect,” the angular tribal beat of 2000’s “Dancing in the Head” (which outlines proper care for zombies — salt is a no-no!). The Mekons never met a genre they couldn’t twist to their sensibilities.
A few gripes aside — the liner notes mention the tunes’ original albums, but good luck determining personnel (only Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh are lifers; other Mekons come and go. Some incarnations of the band numbered a Polyphonic Spree-esque 20!) and a brief band history would’ve been nice — Heaven and Hell is a good launching pad for those curious about the band from Leeds, England, with one of the most wide-ranging, eclectic discographies on the scene today. Pick a handful of Mekons tarcks that speak to you on Heaven and Hell and go find the original albums.