Punk. Rock. Two great tastes that go great together? Or just two, two, two products in one? To a cynic, the latter may well seem the case. But it's hard to be cynical when the subject at hand is The Mekons.
Now The Mekons don't really meet today's popular definition of punk, even though the least "punk-looking" of the bunch, straw-haired Lu Edmonds, has played in The Damned and Public Image Ltd. They won't be on the next Warped tour, there aren't any digits to be found in their name, the band members sport hair that's more gray than spiky, and they use accordion, fiddle, and Edmonds' odd assortment of stringed acoustic instruments almost as much as guitar, bass and drums.
But you and me, we know better, and firmly believe that punk is an attitude and not just a fashion or set of rules. And that's why we know that The Mekons are punk, from their DIY roots to their fiercely antiestablishment politics to their try-anything-once approach to music. Punk Rock finds The Mekons re-examining some songs they (or at least founding members Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh, the band's only two constants through the past quarter century) originally worked up between 1977 and 1980, re-recorded in our times by a band that has grown and evolved without ever becoming slick.
Punk Rock is punk the way, say, London Calling is, presenting a broad musical mixture that spans Celtic-sounding rock (the fiddle-driven "Teeth"); populist electric folk ("32 Weeks"); goofy, giddy thrash anthems ("Fight the Cuts" and "Dan Dare"); calypso love songs ("Work All Week"); and lurvely country-ish ballads sung by Cowboy Sally Timms ("Corporal Chalkie" and "Chopper Squad").
That said, the songs aren't always as good as one might hope, especially in comparison to The Mekons' peak period, which stretched from 1985's Fear and Whiskey through 1993's I Love Mekons while encompassing most of the styles mentioned above. Yet this seems the result of a conscious decision the band made to stick to the spirit of this material, written in the days before the self-taught musicians earned their memberships in the composers' guild. For every "Teeth," which grates at first but burns its way into your head after a handful of listens, there's a number like "Lonely and Wet," a bawling dirge that fails to win you over despite its best efforts.
But what really stands out is how non-musical or just unmelodic some of Punk Rock is, and I don't mean the noisy cuts or the low-tech live numbers strewn throughout. A number of these songs verge into some very unexpected territory, unsurprising in light of the fact that The Mekons' ambition outstripped their abilities during the period in which this material was written. Sometimes this oddness is as minor as the tremulous quiver in Greenhalgh's voice throughout much of "What," or as major as the dissonant dirge that the acoustic, Timms-sung "Chopper Squad" descends and dissolves into over its latter two-thirds. In a similar vein is the live, a cappella Langford-bellowed "The Building," which features audience participation bits that work better in person than on a live recording.
That they're willing to forge and share such difficult music shows again what punks these Mekons are, because you just know they could pretty these numbers up in a heartbeat if they wanted to. Instead, they remind us that life isn't all pretty and tuneful, while paying homage to their own past.
Is this the best Mekons album? Not by a long shot, hombre, as it doesn't attain the highs offered during the band's peak period. Is it a good introduction to the band? I'd have to give a qualified yes, as it does effectively demonstrate The Mekons' broad range, even if the material showcased still seems akin to a work in progress after 25 years, as you just wish that they would sand down some of the rougher edges. File under admirable, but not especially admired.