by Michael Goldberg
Monday, September 9, 2002
The Mekons Are 'Out Of Our Heads'
Still fighting the good fight.
The Mekons began life in 1977 as a punk band in Leeds, England. They're still a punk band, if you take that word to describe an attitude and not a sound; if you believe that punk can include a country ballad and an English folk tune (a vocal approach that might make you think of The Band, if The Band were from Leeds, England, or the recordings of Richard and Linda Thompson); if you think that punk is about subversive ideas and taking chances, not a rigid style.
Greil Marcus describes The Mekons as a "tribe," not a band. And certainly on their new album, Oooh! (Out of Our Heads), they sound a hell of a lot more like a tribe or a bunch of longtime friends, sitting around the living room (campfire?) singing songs together, than a "band." "I think it's a band of people that don't approach music in the same way that a lot of musicians do," explains Sally Timms, one of the group's singers (eight of the current lineup's nine members sing, and there are three guest vocalists on the album as well), in a recent Punk Planet interview. "It's more like an ideas band, weirdly enough. People come in and out with ideas and it's very conceptual. ... It's a backwards process. It's an idea that you don't sit down and strum a few chords and then build a song, it comes from a group of people exchanging ideas about how they feel about the world."
Apparently, The Mekons don't feel so good about the world. But if it's going up in flames (and I'd say that based on the songs on this album, they probably think it is), they're going to amuse themselves all the same and for as long as they can. In that same Punk Planet interview, singer/songwriter/guitarist Jon Langford indicated that the band could continue for decades to come. "I don't see why I wouldn't carry on singing with The Mekons when I'm 60 years old," he said.
The Mekons make a kind of rock music, but it's rock music with all the influences showing. And it's rock music that can veer into country ballads with ripping slide guitar lines and soaring fiddle, or utilize the lessons learned from ska, reggae and dub (just check out "Dancing in the Head"). You'll hear Appalachian country and Irish reels, and a lot of music that sounds old, but not in a retro or nostalgic way. The Mekons work with musical tools that have been with us for centuries, but use them to make a music that's as alive as you and I.
The band seems to be run as a collective (a tribe!), although it appears that Langford and singer/guitarist Tom Greenhalgh serve as the informal leaders. The members are spread out across four cities. Langford and Timms are based in Chicago; the others are in New York, San Francisco and London. Timms says the songs are collaborative efforts, and they sound like it.
I have come to believe that the best songs are all about the sound and the emotions communicated through the music, including the vocals. Whether lyrics make literal sense or nonsense, or just further the emotional terrain of the music, hardly matters. When you listen to the sad ballad "Hate Is the New Love," it is the mournful minor-key melody of the fiddle and Timms' vocal that tell the story, more so even than the lyrics, which seem to describe the hopelessness of modern life. " 'Cos there's no peace/ On this terrible shore/ Every day is a battle/ How we still love the war."
"Take His Name in Vain" is certainly one of the album's highlights, with the band using their voices to communicate both camaraderie and... well, I'm really not sure what else. The group vocals, with Langford, Timms, Rico Bell, Sarah Corina and others pitching in, have the feel of a barroom sing-along. You can imagine folks with graying beards and wrinkled faces, downing another pint, calling for another round and shouting out the chorus, "Take his name in vain." There has been some kind of betrayal here "Old familiar vampires are sucking our powers," they sing. "Must have heard me/ Take his name in vain." But beyond that, all we know is that the singers (the song is in the first person but a number of vocalists take turns singing the opening verse) have "forgotten more than I care to remember/ Try to tell me something/ Please, please keep trying."
There's a whole "severed heads" theme running through the album from the title ("Out of Our Heads") to such songs as "Dancing in the Head" and "Stonehead" but I don't know much about that. Marcus says the album is "about the salutary effect of severed heads," and perhaps, if you listen to it, that will make perfect sense to you too.
Me, I think this severed heads thing is kind of a running joke, a Mekons in-joke: the album cover depicts a figure bent over a severed head, which is declaring the album's title, "Oooh!," short for "Out of Our Heads"; there are references to heads throughout the CD booklet, such as a newspaper headline ("Beheaded body found in guerrilla territory") and another image of a severed head saying "Heads will roll."
All of this pushes beyond the boundaries of so-called "good taste," which I think is the real point here. One of the things I believe The Mekons are addressing in an oblique way is the utter savagery and barbarism of war (physical, cultural, psychological). This album arrived three or so weeks short of the anniversary of 9/11; the first song is titled "Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem." War is a reality in many parts of the globe; there are also other wars going on, right at home, whereever home might be.
One of those wars is over culture, and what gets a shot on the airwaves, what gets "heard." The Mekons "Oooh!" is released through Touch & Go, a relatively small indie label. It will not get the attention that Springsteen's The Rising or Avril Lavigne's Let Go are getting. No one is wounded or killed in this war, but it's a war all the same. That The Mekons are together after 25 years, and have created an album as powerful and moving as Oooh!, with songs as simultaneously joyous and profound as "Only You and Your Ghost Will Know," tells me this is one war we're winning.