The Mekons – Ancient and Modern (2011)

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Only a band like the Mekons could make something like Ancient and Modern, this whipsawing triumph of country contemplation and righteous, guitar-banging indignation, work so completely. After all, that’s their story.

The Mekons, formed in Britain in the late 1970s, can now be called not just one of the longest-lasting but also one of the most consistently intriguing of the first-wave British punk-rock bands. Originally a noise-loving loose-knit group, by the early 1980s the Mekons eventually coalesced into a backwoods-inflected amalgam, sounding something like Gram Parsons sitting in with the Clash. Their 1985 gem Fear and Whiskey might just be the first alt.country release.

Founders Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh remain from the original lineup, augmented by vocalist Sally Timms, violinist Susie Honeyman, Lu Edmunds, accordion-vocalist Rico Bell and drummer Steve Goulding – each of whom has been part of the band for decades. (Edmonds was previously with the Damned, and Goulding with the Rumour.) The Mekons also features bassist Sarah Corina.

Together, they open Ancient and Modern, due Sept. 27 through Sin Records, on this just-right note with “Warm Summer Sun” — a tune that lives up completely to the album’s title. You hear Hank Williams in the instrumentation, and Roger Waters in the vocal. Then “Space in Your Face” bursts out with a noisy violence — rough edged in its way, but also hopeful in the end. “Geeshie,” with a cooing vocal turn from Timms, swings the pendulum the other way, sounding like a hootenanny outtake. Later, on “Ugly Bethesda,” she descends into a lonesome bitterness — “mama’s lying down,” she whispers over a shuddering fiddle, “and daddy’s underground.”

After the broken-dream moralism of “I Fall Asleep,” the Mekons tear into “Calling All Demons,” which is somehow both frenzied and stately. “Ancient and Modern,” boasting a boozy Americana groove, is defined by another contradiction — this nostalgic and then ultimately telling admission: “I had a breakdown.” It starts out as an excuse, then transforms into a self-fulfilling prophesy after a while. “Honey Bear” is a loose protest, loose enough for doubt to turn into something more emotional. “Arthur’s Angel” goes on to ask the broader questions that creep in during our lives’ second acts: “We found the treasure, but how do we spend it?”

The album, their 26th (!), mirrors the Mekons’ own many contradictions. It is, as they are, at once complicated — a little pissed off, a little confused – and yet completely of a piece. Their very longevity provides the connective fabric. It’s a blessing to still have them.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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