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The track record of U.K. rockers trying their hands at American country music is none too impressive. For every semisuccessful dabbler like Frankie Miller (never heard of him? Get thee to a file-swapping program), there’s a true-blue fuckup like Mick Jagger. Among plentiful other high crimes and misdemeanors, Jagger has, on at least two occasions, positively deflated otherwise high-risin’ selections of Keith-powered corn pone: “Dead Flowers,” from Sticky Fingers, and “Far Away Eyes,” from Some Girls.
In both cases, the man’s ridiculously exaggerated faux-Southern vocal attack gives him away as a carpetbagging cross-dresser, a rhinestone cowboy in a Union Jack-spangled rodeo. And even Jagger’s betters have had only middling success playing American: Even certified musicologist Elvis Costello hasn’t pulled it off. Costello went the reverential route with 1981’s Almost Blue, traveling all the way to Nashville to make a record of country covers with producer/songwriter Billy Sherrill, a genuine Music City institution, responsible for scads of hits both ridiculous (Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”) and sublime (George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today”).
Despite his impressive resume, Sherrill couldn’t get the job done with Costello, whose preference for honky-tonk barn-burners is surprisingly ill-suited to his whiskey-soaked husk of a voice. In the end, the ballads on Almost Blue sorta worked, the foot-stompers mostly didn’t, and the New Wave demigod left Nashville an even angrier young man, accusing Sherrill, justifiably, of making music by the yard.
So God bless the Waco Brothers, who for six albums now have been trying hard to correct the mother country’s shoddy record—even if most of the group’s members decamped from England’s green and pleasant land for the dingy streets of Chicago years ago. Though it’s true that the city is known more for its blues than its country tradition, Chicago and its environs have become a latter-day hotbed for “insurgent country,” nurturing the likes of Uncle Tupelo—and therefore Wilco and Son Volt—as well as Janet Bean of the ultra-fabulous Freakwater, a band of well-credentialed indie-rockers (Eleventh Dream Day, anyone?) who make Jagger’s drag-show act sound like amateur hour.
The city’s hybridizing scene suits the Wacos perfectly. Led by living punk legend Jon Langford, the group has always laced its music with crunchy guitars and pedal steel, clip-clop tempos and a walloping kick drum. On New Deal, the band’s latest long-player, Langford & Co. turn in the honky-tonk equivalent of hardcore: music that’s fast-paced, politicized, and completely impervious to line-dancing.
It’s also a bit hit-or-miss. When Langford’s doing the singing, New Deal clicks hard, sounding suspiciously like the countrified punk record you just know the guys in the Clash had in ’em around the time of Sandinista!—or maybe like the one Joe Strummer would make now, if only those Rancid kids would let him. When one of Langford’s less-masterful cohorts country-rocks the mike, however…well, let’s just say Jagger isn’t the only rocker who can make you wonder just what the hell kind of accent that’s supposed to be.
But subtlety has never been the Wacos’ forte. The band, after all, features former members of Duran Duranabes Jesus Jones (Alan Doughty) and big-beat industrialists KMFDM (Marcus Durante), as well as the self-proclaimed World’s Greatest Living Englishman, Tracey Dear. It also includes once-and-future Mekon Steve Goulding, as well as Dean Schlabowske, who used to kick up an ugly ruckus with Milwaukee art-punk ensemble Wreck. With a star-studded lineup like that, if you’re gonna do it, you might as well overdo it, and on New Deal, the Wacos revel in hamming it up, pouring on the redneck grease as if it were maple syrup at your favorite Waffle House.
The show, however, is mostly Langford’s. With an assist from Stacey Earle, who chimes in with “strident harmonies,” he sets the mood with the disc’s fiddle-fueled opener, “Poison.” While his band serves up a heapin’ helpin’ of chugging, country-coated blues, Langford points an accusing finger at a political turncoat: “Cultures clash/And the rules all break and bend/You’re sharing false notions/With your new conservative friends” he sneers, then adds, punningly, “It’s your party, but I don’t want to go.” If the Democrats had one iota of nutsac, they would immediately embrace the track as their new, post-midterms fight song.
Langford also gets his proletarian digs in on “Blink of an Eye,” a “love song for the maladjusted” built on the chord changes from the Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” and a bouncy tunefulness that belies the song’s preoccupation with death. Amid images such as “Every little mother’s darling/Falling like a bullet from the sky,” Langford takes conspiracy-theorist-style swipes at a certain figurehead-in-chief: “The president’s just half a man/Riding in some giant’s hand/He’s gone in the blink of an eye.” And on “I’m a Ghost,” Langford makes the personal political, this time taking caustic aim at himself. Once he’s found the point of musical intersection between Wire and Conway Twitty, the singer declares that he’s “the nightmare you forgot,” even allowing that “all by myself I scare myself.” All that’s required next is some scary evil laughter, which the Wacos promptly provide.
Other New Deal keepers include the sultry juke-joint vamp “New Moon,” the almost-funky “Just No Way,” and “AFC Song,” the latest in a series of great Langford-led drinking anthems. The track sounds a lot like Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” played at 78 rpm, and, naturally, “AFC” stands for “alcohol, freedom & a country song.”
That said, the album hits a dry patch or two whenever it gets too formally correct. “New Deal Blues” is a connect-the-dots Jason and the Scorchers retread, and the pokey, Bush-baiting “The Lie” might as well be a Son Volt outtake. On both tracks, the drawl comes on a little too thick, the torch and twang a little too pro forma. Surprisingly, both songs are sung by token American Schlabowske, who seems to have misspent some serious quality time with old Hee Haw reruns—or, for that matter, with the overpraised early works of Uncle Tupelo.
For the most part, though, the Wacos pull off a very neat trick: keeping things authentic-sounding without getting too, well, authentic-sounding. Lyrically, they tap the vein that pumped populist lifeblood into both classic country and vintage punk. And musically, the band certainly knows when to bring the noise. So chalk one up for the Brits. Who knows? If some enterprising impresario overseas ever gets around to setting up the Merry Ole Opry, these guys might even feel OK about repatriating themselves. CP