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When not outright poisonous, Americana is usually dull: The history-conscious roots rock of the Long Ryders, for example, aspired to be a junior- high film strip. For Jon Langford, though, old-fashioned country music is a gift from, well, not God obviously, because when the lapsed-punk Mekons turned to Hank Williams in 1985 they were reuniting to play Marxist doomslingers on the British-mineworkers’- strike circuit.
A decade later, the band’s university-trained consciousness is on display at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, where the Mekons have collaborated with conceptual artist Vito Acconci on a performance piece. Langford, however, now lives in Chicago, within the orbit of a genuinely American post-punk country-rock revival. His latest side project (following the dearly departed Three Johns and the Jelly Bishops) is the Waco Brothers, which also includes off-and-on Mekons drummer Steve Goulding as well as Bottle Rockets bassist Tommy Ray, mandolinist Tracy Dear, and Wreck’s Dean Schlabowske, who shares guitar and vocal duties with Langford.
Originally from south Wales, Langford has left one rust belt for another, so it’s fitting that the first song on the Brothers’ …To the Last Dead Cowboy (after an opening country-swing fanfare) is “Plenty Tough—Union Made,” a stubborn accolade to organized workers: “Thing were bad but things got changed,” testifies Langford. “Our rewards are not in heaven,” goes the refrain, “Working woman and working man/We’re not waiting for judgment day.”
Such broadsides are not typical of the album, which mixes Mekons-style existential dread with themes straight out of old Nashville. “Risked a lot to live like humans,” sings Langford in “Plenty Tough,” echoing such vintage Mekons material as “Hard to Be Human Again,” recorded when the band members had just discovered that country music—in Langford’s words—“connected with our alienated, drunk, commie souls.”
Most Cowboy tunes challenge not capital but more conventional adversaries of the working man: drink, despair, bad love, homogenization. “This country starts to look and sound the same/There’s a singer on the radio and I don’t like his name,” announces Langford in the title song. “Take a trip to the wide open spaces/Looking for the traces of the wild frontier’s call/Riding out, feel the rain on our faces/Through familiar places, the truckstop and the mall.”
The songs that Schlabowske sings are not bad, but they lack the ironic awareness and stylistic audacity of his partner’s. Unlike Mekon Tom Greenhalgh, Schlabowske is not Langford’s match as either a wit or an assimilator. About half of Cowboy is rollicking (or, alternately, morose) trad-country that takes Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and Johnny Cash a bit too literally. Schlabowske can yodel with assurance, and—as he demonstrates on songs like “Bad Times (Are Comin’ Round Again),” one of the album’s more overtly political tracks—Ray has mastered that Cashian line-ending bass twang. It’s only when Langford steps into the spotlight, however, that the Brothers become more than a tribute band.
The political is mostly personal on the tunes Schlabowske sings (and apparently wrote, although the band takes collective songwriting credits), but Langford pushes for more. Presumably named after the smoking apocalypse the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms left behind in Texas, the Waco Brothers gallop toward oblivion on songs like “Too Sweet to Die” and “Bill the Cowboy.” The latter takes a wild ride with “the last president of the United States,” while the former toasts—and taunts—the devil: “Oh we’re too sweet to die/We’ll be buried alive/The lipstick on my shirts says/We’re too sweet to die.”
The Brothers are handicapped by their lack of sisters: Only one song, “Lake of Vinegar,” incorporates a female vocal, and Cowboy would benefit from the fiddle counterpoint Susie Honeyman used to provide the Mekons. If neither as diverse in timbre nor as anarchic in spirit as the mid-’80s Mekons, though, the Brothers occasionally achieve an exuberance Langford’s full-time band hasn’t reached (at least in the studio) in years. At its best, the album strikes an exhilaratingly fragile balance between despair and defiance; songs like “Too Sweet to Die” and “If You Don’t Change Your Mind” are just dark enough to be properly ebullient.
Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments play good ol’ sloppy American punk rock—the most abandoned song on the quartet’s Bait and Switch owes more to Half Japanese than to Hank Williams—but the U.S.A. is their subject too. In fact, singer Ron House claimed this turf before Langford did, with an engagingly offhand, winningly intelligent band called Great Plains. Where Plains’ songs invoked such long-buried fellow Midwesterners as Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes, House’s new group (based, like the last one, in Columbus, Ohio) salutes pioneering Cleveland band the Electric Eels (with a cover of their “Cyclotron”) and rages against the city’s newest tourist attraction.
Bait would be notable if it contained only “RnR Hall of Fame,” a feverish, funny one-minute-long assault on the Jann Wenner/I.M. Pei new-mistake-by-the-lake that’s rendered in the style of early Half Jap. “Bombs away on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!” howls House. “I don’t want to see the shotgun of Kurt Cobain….I don’t want to see the liver of David Crosby….Blow it up before Steve Albini makes a speech!”
Like most smart post-punkers, House is something of a music critic. When not rejecting corporate rock’s latest vanity, he’s picking on the opening act: “All I did was tell them what I think/That the singer in the first band really stinks,” he explains in “Negative Guest List,” an account of being banned from a local club. In “Contract Dispute,” he uses a gun to settle a disagreement with a swindler, possibly a music-industry representative.
A sharp thinker but a blunt singer, House will never fit into the biz, of course. That, however, is just part of the larger alienation Bait expresses. “Told my wife I was going out for a couple of beers/Told her I’d be back in a couple of years,” he confesses in “Cheater’s Heaven,” a song that concludes, “every honest man must live in hell.” “Where do people go when they give up?/I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough,” he shrugs in “Quarrel With the World,” as resigned as any existential cowboy.
Nonchalantly, House doesn’t make too much of his reflections; the album, for example, doesn’t include a lyric sheet. Still, he’s not about to sacrifice his commentary to fancy arrangements and the band’s sorta Stoogey wall of sound. Bob Petric’s thick, distorted guitar is often back in the mix, and House’s voice sometimes competes directly only with a solitary rhythm element: the bass in “Quarrel With the World,” the snare in “You Can’t Kill Stupid.” The guitar is allowed more prominence in the opening “My Mysterious Death (Turn It Up)” and the closing “Wrongheaded”; for the former, Petric has a devised an Andy Gill-style riff that’s the album’s closest thing to a guitar hook.
Things also get clamorous on “Down to High Street,” a “Stepping Stone” near-miss in which House screams, “Down! Down!” Generally, though, the Apartments aren’t much given to histrionics. Rather than the posturing of heavy-metal noise, the band’s din seems natural, folk music for people who grew up with Raw Power. Their songs are noisy, sure, but the Apartments value acuity over intensity.