Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Mekons

  • The Mekons [Red Rhino, 1980] B
  • The Mekons Story [CNT, 1982] B-
  • Fear and Whiskey [Sin, 1985] A+
  • Slightly South of the Border [Sin EP, 1986] B+
  • Crime and Punishment [Sin EP, 1986] A-
  • The Edge of the World [Sin, 1986] A-
  • Honky Tonkin' [Twin/Tone, 1987] B+
  • New York [ROIR, 1987] A-
  • So Good It Hurts [Twin/Tone, 1988] B+
  • The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll [A&M, 1989] A
  • Original Sin [Twin/Tone, 1989] A
  • F.U.N. '90 [A&M, 1990] A-
  • The Curse of the Mekons [Blast First, 1991] A-
  • I Love Mekons [Quarterstick, 1993] B+
  • Retreat from Memphis [Maverick, 1994] Neither
  • Me [Quarterstick, 1998] Choice Cuts
  • I Have Been to Heaven and Back: Hen's Teeth and Other Fragments of Unpopular Culture, Vol. 1 [Quarterstick, 1999] A-
  • Where Were You? Hen's Teeth and Other Lost Fragments of Popular Culture Vol. 2 [Quarterstick, 1999] Choice Cuts
  • Journey to the End of the Night [Quarterstick, 2000] *
  • OOOH! [Quarterstick, 2002] A
  • Punk Rock [Quarterstick, 2004] A-
  • Natural [Quarterstick, 2007] B+
  • Ancient & Modern: 1911-2011 [Sin, 2011] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Mekons [Red Rhino, 1980]
Must be a confusing time in the old country, what with Eurodisco coming back postpunk and the no-wave imperative advancing on no future. Where the Gang of Four respond by constructing a herky-jerk funk from their own inexpertise, their Leeds comrades--who were on that one last year already--yoke an amateur anarchism less obstreperous than Wire's or the Fall's to vaguely traditional songs almost domestic in their attention to modest detail. They also rewrite "Lipstick on Your Collar" I think it is. You figure it out. B

The Mekons Story [CNT, 1982]
Over sixty minutes of previously unreleased tunes or worktapes have been crammed onto twelve inches of vinyl by this since disbanded band or collective, so play it loud or it'll sound like a tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear. Which is actually the idea. As rock Úpater les bourgeois goes, it's humane, imaginative--none of the malignant contempt of Metal Machine Music or Flowers of Romance. A few of the tracks forge form from the refusal of technique, with the thirty-four-second hotel-room punk of "Letter's in the Post" and Mark White's mad-busker voice-and-footstomp revery "The Building" more convincing candidates than any of the rough postpunk or folk-rock or Anglodisco numbers. But unless you're heavily into the byways of anarchist negation, most of it demands more consideration than there's any reason to expect from the ordinary harassed citizen, social worker, journalist, or record executive. B-

Fear and Whiskey [Sin, 1985]
Just when I never wanted to hear a roots-rock record again, along come these British anarchists with a sort of concept album sort of about life during wartime. The Americans are clearing a sector down south, but that doesn't stop the good guys from playing their anarchic country-rock and doing their anarchic Morris stomp and fucking up their anarchic love lives and drinking to keep from shitting their pants and rolling down a highway that may finally be lost for real. Yes, amateurism is still a sentimental fallacy, and if you want to know why it's such a powerful one, listen up. A+

Slightly South of the Border [Sin EP, 1986]
Marking time and maybe taking a small, honorable profit in the bargain, they heat up the remixed title tune to accompany (surprise) a Gram Parsons cover and two originals: a typically realistic, typically depressive response to the miners' strike, and a typically commonplace, typically grim letter from a woman who should have blown the whistle on her dad. B+

Crime and Punishment [Sin EP, 1986]
Four stories that don't quite make sense about waking up with your friend's wife, going to hospital, failing, drinking. Actually the drinking one, a Merle Haggard song, makes sense on its own terms, but in the Mekons' world nothing makes sense, which in the least pessimistic construction is because all these songs are about drinking one way or another. In fact, all seem written from a permanent hangover. But it's fair to say that they've been driven to drink--by life, which is hard and then you die. A-

The Edge of the World [Sin, 1986]
If the continuing existence of their music doesn't place these anti-American country-rockers squarely among the undefeated for you, the continuing eloquence of their lyrics ought to--whether it's Sally Timms trying to talk to the drunk she's stuck with or Jon Langford downing cat food because he doesn't feel human tonight, they haven't given up on saying their piece. Thing is, the listener has to concentrate to be sure, which despite the lyric sheet isn't so easy this time. That's the problem with making fatigue your great theme--it sounds tired awfully fast. A-

Honky Tonkin' [Twin/Tone, 1987]
Nobody would take them for amateurs or anarchists on this evidence. Just a catchy, rocking Brit country band with more enthusiasm than skill in the vocal department and lyrics-included that don't seem to have much to do with honky-tonks--that tend overmuch to the metaphysical, metaphorical, and obscure for all their show of specificity. I await the next phase. B+

New York [ROIR, 1987]
Finally given their megashot at us "American vermin" by the giant Twin/Tone conglomerate, they labored harder than the huddled masses they champion and flubbed it like the born-to-losers they are. So this offhand hour of U.S. live from their self-employed days is doubly welcome. Interspersed with tour-bus patter, soused ad-libs, and other memorabilia, its selected honky-tonk retatters the reputation of a band that's made something friendly of the slop aesthetic without being jerks or airheads about it. Dim ROIR sound adds to the aura by subtracting from same. A-

So Good It Hurts [Twin/Tone, 1988]
Reports that they've "gone reggae" are grossly exaggerated and no big deal--the Bellamy Brothers beat them to that crossover by a country mile, and the skank that kicks things off is as lovable as anything they've ever done (bumbling semipros they may be, but their drummer used to work for the Rumour). If only they were hip enough to cover "Old Hippie" (that's a Bellamys song, kids), all would be well. As it is they cover (some would claim redefine) "Heart of Stone" and write bookish lyrics I don't understand even when I've read the authors in question. B+

The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll [A&M, 1989]
If you love rock and roll (which is possible even if you slum the spelling with apostrophes), but don't think Rock and Roll (much less Rock 'n' Roll) a propitious title right now, you could love this album, which takes their love-hate relationship with America to the bank. Musically, it's rock and roll despite the fiddles sawing louder than ever, almost as Clashlike as the promo claims, with Steve Goulding bashing away louder than ever too. Lyrically, in great song after great song, rock and roll is devil's-breath perfume, capitalism's "favourite boy child," a commodity like sex, a log to throw on the fire, a "shining path back to reconquer Americay." Are they implicated? Of course. Do they love it? Yes and no. A

Original Sin [Twin/Tone, 1989]
Fear and Whiskey was a triumph in search of a war, and even their fans lost the two EPs that followed in the shuffle. Minus a Merle Haggard cover and plus two other cuts, one of which stinks just in case you mistook them for great artists, all this product comes together on this remastered repackage, and it coheres wonderfully--the EPs resonate off an album that doesn't leave you hungering for something completely different when its thirty-five minutes are through. If you're among the millions who missed Fear and Whiskey, this is a golden opportunity. These guys know how to make the most of failure. That's the kind of anarchist revolutionaries I like. A

F.U.N. '90 [A&M, 1990]
Such traditionalists yet such parodists, such idealists yet such cynics--such pomo conflaters. Their latest interim EP is another all-cover job: Robbie Robertson as Gram Parsons, Kevin Coyne as Sally Timms, the supposedly trad. arr. "Sheffield Park," and a hotel-room vocal by Lester Bangs turned muffled centerpiece of . . . what have we here? A dance record, maybe they think--except for the "country" song, every track motorvates off an atypically insistent and/or electronic riff or obbligato. So maybe it isn't interim after all--maybe it marks one of their big transitions. And maybe it's a goof. A-

The Curse of the Mekons [Blast First, 1991]
Repulsed after storming capitalism's citadels with the well-named Rock 'n' Roll, they fall back exhausted, dissociated, spewing analysis and country songs and putting more oomph into the latter. The same Sally Timms who sounds suspiciously like Susie Honeyman outlining the history of the heroin trade delivers John Anderson's putatively apolitical "Wild and Blue" like a sybil at a battered women's shelter; the same Tom Greenhalgh who calls out a "bourgeois sorcerer" in a bemused falsetto praises "magic, fear and superstition" as lustily as George Jones. Yet they continue to face down bourgeois sorcerers, earning the right to thank Jesus that "beer" rhymes with "career." A-

I Love Mekons [Quarterstick, 1993]
Right, love songs, laid out casually across disc and lyric sheet--a country album without a happy ending. Jon and Tom are too cynical, but they're not too callow, so their scenarios generate recognizable permutations of lust if not ecstasy, emotion if not devotion, and when Sally Timms sings about that "Millionaire," they sound like the great old pros they are. Too often, though, love just doesn't seem like their subject--the only time the music achieves carnal knowledge of the message is on the sarcastic "Special" and the confused "I Don't Know." B+

Retreat from Memphis [Maverick, 1994] Neither

Me [Quarterstick, 1998]
"Men United"; "Have a Go If You Think You're Hard Enough" Choice Cuts

I Have Been to Heaven and Back: Hen's Teeth and Other Fragments of Unpopular Culture, Vol. 1 [Quarterstick, 1999]
Once table scraps, now a damn fine buffet, ranging from superb songs done dirt by label politics to intelligent songs that never erupt to an outtake from The Mekons Story, which is kind of like saying a reject from the Bad News Bears ("Roger Troutman," not a Zapp reference, worth preserving). Tastier orts include the ghostwritten autobiography of Sally Timms, a Rod Stewart cover, well-conceived donations to Rock for Choice and a "Lounge Ax" benefit, and a techno-rock football cheer. A-

Where Were You? Hen's Teeth and Other Lost Fragments of Popular Culture Vol. 2 [Quarterstick, 1999]
"Fancy"; "1967 Revisited"; "Where Were You?" Choice Cuts

Journey to the End of the Night [Quarterstick, 2000]
They give a war and nobody comes ("Last Night on Earth," "Last Weeks of the War"). *

OOOH! [Quarterstick, 2002]
Their best album in a decade doesn't exactly come up and give you a kiss. Half 9-11 fallout, half night thoughts of a band whose heyday is past, it begins with what seems a faux-folk trope until you realize that "Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem" is also the new crusade, and ends with the impassive boast, "We pride ourselves that our memory/Will vanish from the memory of the world." It's slow, sour, dark, grim--obsessed with treachery, conflagration, and death. For years the Time Out of Mind fan club has been finding unfathomable fatalism in folk songs that rarely gather the grounded gravity sustained here. Inspirational Verse (really, think about it): "Everyday is a battle/How we still love the war." A

Punk Rock [Quarterstick, 2004]
Periodizing their history for fun and mainly profit on their 2002 tour, the Mekons who could remember back that far--namely, trouper Jonboy Langford and sufferer Tom Greenhalgh--relearned the punk rants that set the stage for their transition to faux country. These aren't indelible tunes like "At Home He's a Tourist" or "Suspect Device." But months later they're still getting not just stronger but rawer, which isn't how this game usually works. One comparison is the eponymous hardcore album Rancid dropped in 2000 when ska felt played out, but this is sharper and more varied. Who could not love how "32 Weeks," in which Rico Bell I think it is bellows out how much time it takes to earn the price of a car, a mattress, a bottle of whiskey, leads to "Work All Week," in which Jonboy promises his beloved gold itself? A-

Natural [Quarterstick, 2007]
This acoustic group-sing had me hedging like a derivatives trader when it came out--until I observed eight humans called Mekons sit around grousing and banging on tour. Dressed like the wraith of a ska boy and dancing like a drunken undertaker, die-hard Londoner Tom Greenhalgh especially made these death songs come alive--not just Tom's dismal opener and Jon Langford's can't-come climax and everybody's desert prophecy, but the animal fables, the mystery history, the agricultural workers' carouse, the unplugged teeter-totter for the digital age. If you don't know much about these 30-year veterans except that they're legendary, this probably isn't where to find out why. If you have any idea what I'm talking about, however, partake. B+

Ancient & Modern: 1911-2011 [Sin, 2011]
I had to play this two dozen times on faith before it came clear--too many, don't you think? What kept me on it was the ingrained musicality of a bunch of jokers who've evolved into a sonic organism even though they never see each other anymore, defined by "afar and forlorn" Welshman-for-life Tom Greenhalgh, who three decades in is a singer you love or you don't. Having given up on changing the world and without much hope of comprehending it before it kills them, they convene here to record 11 obscure, fraught, forlorn songs written, near as one can tell, from the POV of middle-to-ruling class Britons negotiating the political turmoil before World War I. There will be victories for a working class that's called by its rightful name. But they won't be enough. They never are. Near as one can tell. A-

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