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Jon Langford
Gold Brick

The Mekons. The Waco Brothers. Pine Valley Cosmonauts. Three Johns. Ship & Pilot Band. The common denominator is, of course, Jon Langford, a one-man roots-music phenomenon who can be in three bands before breakfast and still have a few hours for painting before his radio show. Yet though he is a busy guy, his third solo album shows all the marks of careful consideration and time well spent. Gold Brick is relaxed and excellent, the kind of record that buries its skill deep within the fabric of the music, so that hardly any of the effort shows.

Part of that comes from the quality of Langford's band, which includes his Waco bass player, Alan Doughty, and more occasional collaborators like John Rice, Pat Brennan, Dan Massey and Jean Cook. Brennan's keyboard work is particularly fine, from the swell of organ and barroom piano of "Little Bit of Help" to the radiant piano trills of the title track. The string arrangements are quite good, too, adding melancholic sweetness to "Buy It Now" and vibrating tension to "Salty Dog." And the guitar work is subtly, unshowoffishly wonderful, from the Spanish drama of "Workingman's Palace" to the slashing chords of "All Roads Lead Back to Me" to the twitchy, palm-muted strut of "Gorilla & the Maiden."

Gold Brick is subtitled "Or Lies of the Great Explorers or Columbus at Guantanamo Bay," slipping listeners a broad hint at the disc's backward-looking content. Nearly every song is charged with nostalgia, as Langford, born in Wales, schooled in Leeds, a traveler all his life and currently living in Chicago, ponders the pull of home in a fractured world. In "Workingman's Palace" he finds shelter in a corner bar, where an Old Style neon light shines its welcome. In "All Roads Lead Back to Me" he recognizes himself and his audience as the only constant in a life of wandering. And in the title track, even the saccharine words on a greeting card are enough to make him cry, as "You recycle some life from the past/ With attention to detail, so rigid, so futile, consuming it all." When he finishes the album with "Lost in America," telling us that "Columbus fell down on his knees/ So weak from sailing on the seas/ He thought he was in the East Indies/ But he was lost in America," we know that he is speaking not just for the famous explorer, but himself and all of us at midlife, wondering how we got here.

This is a very consistent album, with every song bringing its own specific pleasures, but still, three stand out. "Workingman's Palace" draws you in immediately with its luminous guitar line, catches you with a chorus that sticks immediately and lodges permanently, and breaks your heart with its gently melancholy lyrics. It's the kind of song that makes you long for home, wherever it is, for reasons that you can't quite put your finger on, and its wonderful piano break, mid-song, just seals the deal. "Gorilla and the Maiden" is an entirely different beast, reminding you perhaps of Strummer's "Coma Girl" with its choked guitar line. It's held back, restrained, about to explode, and it finally does, leading into the longed-for release and abandon. And finally, "Lost in America," the song that Langford wrote for NPR's This American Life and which, most likely, was the seed from which Gold Brick eventually grew, ends the album in triumphant style.

Skill counts. Experience matters. It takes an old pro to make the hard things seem easy... and Langford does just this in Gold Brick.

by Jennifer Kelly

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