Waco Brothers are almost impossible to resist. Their rambling, shambling honky-tonk rock ‘n’ roll is so unapologetically derivative and at the same time so heartfelt, all you can do is hoist a longneck beer in appreciation.
The on-again off-again band, one of several projects of Mekons co-founder Jon Langford, is on again with New Deal, their sixth release. As before, we get a collection of Saturday night lives — people down on their luck, up a creek, and trying to make it by on “alcohol, freedom, and a country song”. If anything’s changed, it’s a simple matter of age: where Langford and company’s rawhide rock might have once seemed a tad affected (Langford is, after all, a former art student punk, and Welsh to boot), they now inhabit this domain with the grizzled assurance of a thousand sozzled nights in sawdust bars. They’ve even been declared the unofficial house band of Austin’s SXSW festival.
The astoundingly prolific Langford is much in evidence on New Deal (this is his third album of the year, following the Mekons’ OOOH and an anti-death-penalty compilation under the Pine Valley Cosmonauts rubric — and that’s not counting his painting and art exhibits). But his cohorts Deano Schlabowske and Tracey Dear also chip in with hell-raising tunes and whiskey-tinged vocals. Mekons drummer Steve Goulding is along as usual, and he and bass player Alan Doughty (of Jesus Jones — yes, that Jesus Jones) provide relentless chug-a-lug rhythm. Meanwhile, Mark Durante’s pedal steel makes the weepers weep like they oughta.
What’s striking about New Deal is how often the Wacos not only call to mind their influences but actually do them proud. Their several Stones rips (“New Moon”, “The Lie”, “New Deal Blues”) are much more convincing descendants of Exile on Main Street than anything Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years. And much of the rest is the kind of punky roots music Joe Strummer has been trying and failing to perfect ever since the Clash imploded. It’s enough to make you wonder if one of the things that has kept Langford and the rest of Mekons’ extended family so energetic for so long is their relative obscurity — success never had a chance to spoil them. (The Mekons’ recent 25th anniversary tour certainly seemed to bear that out — the band may be “old and fat” as Langford proudly proclaimed from the stage, but they still rock with a conviction that puts most of the junior generation to shame.)
And this being Langford, the raucous sing-alongs on New Deal can’t help but include a little more than your average somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs. The opener, “Poison”, is a shot across the bow of smug techo-conservatism. Langford cannily critiques the insularity of cyber-culture, the way it allows people to hole up in their homes and only communicate with like minds. “Cultures clash and the rules all break and bend”, Langford snarls, “You’re sharing false notions with your new conservative friends / Riding out on-line from the corner you defend”. His remedy is agreeably uncouth: “Time to break wind where your shrinking violets grow / You’ve got a one-party state of mind / It’s your party, but I don’t want to go”. “New Deal Blues” is a timely tabulation of recessionary hardships, and “The Lie” sounds like it might be about a certain leader of the free world (“A builder of bridges to nowhere / First puppet on the moon / They all call you junior”). Elsewhere, the fare is more traditional: “honky tonk shadows”, ghosts of past loves, losers, and losses. The bottom line is, there are a lot of people out there in the alt-country realm trying to do this stuff, but few who do it with as much brains or heart as the Waco Brothers.