Monday, January 9, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #170 - Mekons – Fear and Whiskey

Noted rock critic Lester Bangs, who’s prone to hyperbole but also often correct, once called the Mekons “…the most revolutionary group in rock ‘n’ roll.” He may be wrong, but I can’t think of another group that better fits the bill. The Mekons are not a band, not really anyway – they’re more an anarchic collective who’ve now hung around together long enough that you can call them a band whether they like it or not (and really, I don’t think they mind). Luckily, band or no, they have continued to record and release albums from 1979 until now. Well, there was that time around 1982 when they called it quits as a group (or collective, or whatever) but they wisely decided to push through it, rediscovered their roots, and came back strong in ’85 with Fear And Whiskey, probably the best of their many good-to-great albums. And to hear about their legend, hear about the ramshackle nature of their music, hear fans calling Fear and Whiskey a masterpiece, or the album that created alt-country – and there are many people who will say those things – and then to hear the record, well, that’s a different story.

The first half/side makes you understand in just over 20 minutes that the band has little interest in creating “punk” music per se, or “country” either. None of the songs really resemble each other except in their loosely amateurish approach, the sawed violin (“fiddle,” if you prefer) of Susie Honeyman cutting through the clamor regularly to mark them, and perhaps how high the pounding drums are in the mix, leaving the normal rock leads of vocals and guitar considerably further back. But there’s something interesting in this stew, something that keeps bubbling up to the ear in every song – a nagging riff here; some guitar noise over there; the dark resignation of lines like "I was out the other night, fear and whiskey kept me going," or “darkness and doubt just followed me about” or “it’s hard to be human again;” the song that takes over a minute to fall apart at the end; the eccentric spoken-word pieces that seem to wander around an idea rather than tell a story – all of these find their way to the front of the mind and then recede into the album’s mix to be confronted next time ‘round.

The second half, which is more uniform in sound (but not necessarily better and certainly no more professional-sounding) kicks off with the rousing waltz called “Flitcraft,” which makes the country influence more palpable than anywhere in the first half. But rather than trying to sound like the finely-honed American version of country music, they’re more channeling the spirit of its classic practitioners. During their hiatus they began to fully comprehend the class-conscious rootedness of both American country and English folk, connected their directness and simplicity to the punk rock scene they were involved in and voila – out came this album. So when the next one, called “Country,” starts with “We know that for many years there's been no country here, Nothing here but the war” and says “I’m not ready for this, I am not ready for this” and the one after that is about a failed miners’ strike, they marry country music’s working class themes with punk’s bitterness and politics, both filtered through their own weathered, melancholic sensibilities that really go out on the album’s two final tunes. “Last Dance” is perhaps the album’s masterstroke, in which a night at a dance hall ends at last call with hope, resignation, drunkenness, desperation, and beauty all rolled into one perfectly sloppy/loose/ramshackle faux-country punk tune, and then there’s a spot-on cover of “Lost Highway,” which Hank Williams popularized – and he knew all about hope, resignation, drunkenness, desperation and beauty and sang about them all three decades before the Mekons did, which is why they connect to him.

So it’s country punk, sure, but it’s neither country nor punk. Or it’s both country and punk, but not alt-country. Or it’s alt-country, but not like that boring stuff that came later because of the punk connection, because they looked outward toward the problems of the world and not just their own heartaches (though those factor in, of course). Or as singer Tom Greenhalgh said in an interview with Rebel Route Spring in 1998: "We weren't a directly sloganizing, political band because we had a bit of a problem with that whole slogan-type thing. You know, it runs into other problems. It's kind of more like politics in the sense of everyday politics, or everything-is-politics, so sometimes that actually does merge with the bigger picture. A political view of everything rather than Political with a big “P” and party-politics and everything." To me, that’s country and that’s punk as fuck, all at once. They hit that idea throughout their career, lots of times knocking it out of the park, but this was the first time they did it, and still maybe the best.

-Patrick Brown

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