Music

The Mekons: Natural

Sixteen albums and 30 years into their genre-bending, expectation-confounding career, the Mekons turn the volume down, break out the wooden instruments and craft haunting, bone-clinking songs about mortality.


The Mekons

Natural

Label: Quarterstick
US Release Date: 2007-08-21
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

It's been five years since the Mekons' last album of new material, the grand scale, countrified OOOH!. That would be a monumental pause, and maybe even a death knell, for most bands. But for a band as stubbornly persistent, as willfully still-here-despite-obstacles as the Mekons, it's just a pause for breath. They have, after all, made 16 albums since their conception in 1977. Survivors of the first wave of UK post-punk, they are among the minority of similar, vintage bands who have not reunited lately...because they've never really been apart. Not that it's always been easy. The Mekons have weathered every kind of label perfidy, and shrugged off every sort of trendy expectations. They've turned out eccentric oddities and acknowledged masterpieces with the same level of conviction. You get the sense that they have, pretty much, done exactly what they felt like for the last 30 years, damn the consequences, screw the economics.

In Natural's case, that meant getting back to basics, gathering "in the wilds of the English countryside," and by the sound of it, sticking to well-tried instruments, song structures, and lyrical material. There's a rusty patina on songs like "The Old Fox," its shivery harmonica curling like campfire smoke around slow-changing guitar chords. The lyrics have an almost Aesop's fable quality to them, a sense of one thing standing in for another. The imagery of an old fox "eating from the bin" is, for instance, specific and memorable in itself, but also a metaphor for aging, obsolescence and the approach of death. The melody and structure could hardly be simpler; yet there's a dreamlike, symbolic glow to it, especially when echoic voices rise from the background.

The music is traditional sounding, but not always traditional Anglo-American. The gorgeous "White Stone Door" starts with a malleted percussion right out of Africa and a surge of township harmonies. The world-ish cadence continues throughout, underlining Sally Timms' trembling vocals and Susie Honeyman's wonderfully dark swooning violins. It's an odd juxtaposition, the Appalachian folk and the African beat, but it joins without visible seam in a melting walking reverie.

Not all the songs are as delicate as "White Stone Door," though over all, this seems like a more restrained album than even OOOH!, and is obviously far less rock-oriented than the Mekons' early material. There's a rousing call-and-response stomp called "Shocking Cursebird" to liven up the mid-section of the album, and the dark, apocalyptic gospel "Burning in the Desert Burning" to add intensity near the end. The band even rock-steadies a little reggae with "Cockermouth," the sweep of violin careening through heavy Kingston backbeat. Still, it's the quiet ones that you have to watch. "Diamonds" starts out like a lullaby against a flutter of guitar and mandolin, gaining heft in the country blues guitar solo and rolling inevitably forward into a broad-shouldered folk chorus that you feel you've known all your life.

Many of these songs are about aging and mortality. The "White Stone Door" is pretty clearly found in a cemetery, and "Dark, Dark, Dark" wraps existential terror in dirge-like accordion. Yet the imagery is always grounded in concrete details. In fact, the mix of the uncanny and the ordinary, the combination of familiar pictures and dark overtones, finds its most effective expression in the closer, "Perfect Mirror." "Now we sit and shiver / Watch the cold roll of the water / We wait for fire and in the night / The black mountain above the lake / The image is still...like a perfect mirror". Life and death, realistic detail and mystic epiphany, homespun music and transcendence…each are two sides of the same coin. Even the weird stuff is, as it turns out, completely Natural.

8

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image