Devilishly crafted and scarily melodic GOLD BRICK is Langford’s third solo album and finds him back with R.O.I.R. the pioneering New York label that released The Mekons classic New York album in the late 80s. Collaborating with a band that includes Pine Valley Cosmonauts John Rice (guitar, mandolin etc.) & Pat Brennan (keyboards), Waco Brother Alan Doughty (bass & vocals), Jean Cook (violin) and Dan Massey on drums, this is probably Langford’s most consistent and coherent recording to date.
While 2004’s ALL THE FAME OF LOFTY DEEDS (Bloodshot) took about a week to record and was described as “an Alt-Country Ziggy Stardust” GOLD BRICK is a far more lush & expansive project that draws parallels between the bloody birth of America and the seismic shifts of today’s globalization. Sub-titled LIES OF THE GREAT EXPLORERS and COLUMBUS AT GUANTANAMO BAY it taps into universal themes of exile, exploitation & extremism and even has balls enough to cover a classic Procol Harum song, SALTY DOG.
The album’s closing track LOST IN AMERICA was written for National Public Radio’s THIS AMERICAN LIFE and features members of the ONE-DAY BAND Langford put together from the Chicago Reader’s Musician’s Wanted ads to record Elton John’s ROCKET MAN for the show’s infamous CLASSIFIEDS episode.
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
Jon Langford’s Gold Brick
by Paul Zimmerman
First Coast News
Jon Langford is an artist, period. This guy is so busy he has his hands in practically every medium known to man. Whether itâ€™s as an artist, writer, musician,producer, member of the Mekons or being a Waco Brother, Jon Langford has just about done everything there is to do when it comes to communicating ideas.
Heâ€™s one busy Welshman that has truly reached beyond his home and done more and experienced more than most of us could ever hope to. For this reason, Langford has a unique perspective on the world. Heâ€™s definitely a renaissance man and heâ€™s probably one of the most creative people around today.
On his latest album, Gold Brick Langford takes on the role of a solo artist and never really loses a beat. Itâ€™s a rootsy album that explores the blues, Americana, folk, and even bits of Caribbean music.
Langfordâ€™s Welsh accent meshes well over the multitude of instrumentation used throughout Gold Brick. The way he rolls certain consonants is truly amazing. For someone who isnâ€™t American by birth, this is one heck of an Americana album.
After about four songs into Gold Brick its obvious that Langford is more than a talented musician heâ€™s also a brilliant wordsmith that weaves beguiling tales. Whether itâ€™s the slightly cynical â€œBut It Now,â€� or the pastoral ode to age, â€œTall Ships,â€� Gold Brick is as intriguing as it is entertaining.
Along with his music career, John Langford also finds time to be a critical artist. His paintings are brilliant looks into the past w/an edge that hits at home and makes you think. In celebration of his work, Langford recently released a book entitled, Nashville Radio: Art, Words, and Music. The book reproduces 215 paintings and etchings, along with lyrics, and even has a bit about the artist himself. Itâ€™s a brilliant book and shows that John Langford is an amazingly talented guy. His insights are witty and biting and his story about the death of country music is truly hilarious. The book also comes with a CD featuring 18 of the songs in the book.
Whether itâ€™s art or music or the written word, John Langford is truly a talent that deserves to be a household name. His insights and ways with color, music, and words are fantastic and something everyone should at least check out.
Jon Langford’s American discoveries
Jon Langford’s ‘Lofty on Charmer’
At the moment, the collective unconscious of Americais the sound of her tired, huddled masses steppingback from the breakneck pace of freedom and saying,”What the fuck have we become?” From Terrence Malick’s The New World to Bernard-Henry Levy’s American Vertigo to the Enron crooks and their like-minded CEO in the White House pep talking the troops at the employee picnic, the mirror has been turned on you and me, and what it says is that we’ve got nothing to fear but us ourselves.
Growing up in Wales, musician, painter, and activist Jon Langford got his impression of America primarily from the “cultural imperialism” of U.S. television, specifically the cathode-ray dreams of Bonanza and High Chaparral. While polite pre-punk Britain slumbered outside, and his mates’ parents languished on the dole, Langford watched gun-toting men riding horses in the wild, wild West, making up a nation on the fly. He traveled to America with the first incarnation of his band the Mekons when he was 20 years old. The Mekons played New York just after John Lennon was murdered, and they became enamored with the liberation of punk rock and the promise of America.
“The cowboy myth was sort of this weird civilian uniform you could buy into,” he says. “You could come to America and buy a cowboy hat and a cowboy shirt and Western wear at a Mexican Western-wear shop in Chicago. It was kind of like going to East Berlin and buying a hammer-and-sickle hat: ‘I’m not a total tourist. I’ve been there, and I’ve done that.’ But it was easier to do that in America than East Berlin.”
Langford is 48 years old now. He moved to Chicago when he was 27, after his sophomore band, the Three Johns, played there, and he has become something of an alt-country pioneer with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and the Waco Brothers, two more of his many projects. Actually, “alt-country” and “pioneer” low-balls it. To him, at least: In the promotional materials for his new solo album Gold Brick (or Lies of the Great Explorers or Columbus at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, Langford describes himself as “an exile and an immigrant, a fish out of water, just one of the millions who rode the wind and woke up one day in America.”
“When I was a kid, it was total absorption of all things America,” he says from his home in Chicago, as he and his wife tuck their kids in for the night. He’d just returned from doing his radio show Eclectic Company on WXRT-FM, and was starting to prepare for this weekend’s multimedia presentation at Walker Art Center, “The Executioner’s Last Songs,” based on the three-volume Bloodshot Records collection of the same name. Along with Mekons singer Sally Timms, violinist Jean Cook, DJ Barry Mills, bassist Tony Maimone, and drummer Dan Massey, Langford says his autobiographical benefit piece will seek to make sense out of the greed and violence that fuels his adopted country.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re preaching to the choir, which is why with this show I deliberately didn’t do a piece of agitprop musical theater stating why the death penalty is a bad thing,” he says. “I tried to do something that was more tangential, more thoughtful, that raises other issues. One of the lawyers I met who’s been responsible for getting a lot of people off death row said to me that support for the death penalty is ‘a mile wide and an inch deep.’
“And it’s true. The more you raise the issue, and talk to people, the less they like the idea of it. That goes as far as George Ryan, the [Illinois] Republican governor who cleared death row because he realized it was a broken system and he said he didn’t want innocent blood on his hands.”
America’s bloody beginnings and the roots music it spawned have been at the heart of Langford’s work. The first song he learned to play was Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” His paintings are haunted by Day of the Dead-dipped images of Cash, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Buck Owens, and others, and his bands have made some of the most wicked-raw country-punk the land has ever known. His latest is in step with all of it, including the incendiary immigrant song “Lost in America” as well as the uncharacteristically optimistic “Anything Can Happen.”
“Things seem so bad now, and there’s all sorts of pressure,” he says. “You keep a lid on that kind of pressure and it’s gonna blow at some point. Things have a habit of changing drastically very suddenly.”
Langford knows as much firsthand. He was there when punk rock overthrew dreary old England and gave voice to his generation. Before that, he sat in his home and watched men from America land on the moon. He stayed up all night watching the black and white images, and believed that by the early 21st century we’d be living on other planets.
“There was a lot of optimism about America: cowboys and spacemen,” he says. “Then I got older, and we saw Nixon as a total criminal who wanted to blow up the world or something. Then Reagan and Thatcher formed this unholy alliance. Looking back on it, the way things are now, it’s all sort of quaint. We were actually shocked back then by the idea of warfare; now it’s just perpetual wallpaper to your life.
“When I was a student, people were very hostile to American foreign policy. I still get shit from people for living here when I go back to England. They say, ‘How can you live there, especially with Bush?’ They think it’s a bit of a sellout for a good socialist lad. But I think people who aren’t into music have a very bad view of America. Whereas for us, the explosion of music that happened in the 20th century more than makes up for all the terrible imperialism.”
He laughs at his Pollyanna-side summary and concludes, “It’s a love-hate thing. We were fascinated by America, and the idea of regionalism that was in all those records. And then we were incredibly disappointed when we got here.”
First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2006, Volume 13, #2
Written by John Metzger
Busy co-fronting The Waco Brothers, reuniting The Mekons, working with The Pine Valley Cosmonauts to put an end to the death penalty, and constructing a series of contemporary paintings, it took Jon Langford eight years to concoct his second (proper) solo outing All the Fame of Lofty Deeds. Emboldened by the accolades that he received for the slapdash effort, which was recorded in a week, he didn’t wait nearly as long to unveil his third foray Gold Brick. On the surface, the albums are strikingly similar — right down to their tuneful melodies, populist politics, and Procol Harum covers. What’s different, however, is Langford’s approach. Where All the Fame of Lofty Deeds was imbued with countrified simplicity, Gold Brick — the full title of which is Gold Brick (or Lies of The Great Explorers or Columbus at Guantanamo Bay) — is adorned with lustrous, more luxuriant, and, at times, downright majestic textures. Although he avoids the employment of an actual symphony, he manages to mimic one by fusing fiddle with the plucking of mandolin and dobro to give Invisible Man an orchestrated ambience, while in E Street Band fashion, he blends the grandeur of Phil Spector with the street-corner poetry of Bob Dylan to erect the explosive All Roads Lead Back to Me. Elsewhere, the combination of snaking guitar and elegant piano on Workingman’s Palace draws to mind a collaboration between Mark Knopfler and Steve Nieve, while Little Bit of Help keeps one foot firmly planted in the roadhouse, even as its backing vocals turn Beatle- or, at the very least, Costello-esque. With so much on his plate, there undoubtedly have been times when Langford’s songs have been written from a formulaic perspective, but on Gold Brick, he routinely shatters his mold and ambitiously redefines himself as a purveyor of carefully crafted folk-pop rather than as a conduit for his customarily country-tinged, Clash-driven swagger. *** ½
2 March 2006
Iowa City Press-Citizen
(c) Copyright 2006, Iowa City Press-Citizen. All Rights Reserved.
A Welshman with a fine arts degree from the University of Leeds, Jon Langford co-founded The Mekons (a spectacularly rough ‘n’ tumble crew dubbed “the most revolutionary group in the history of rock ‘n’ roll” by the estimable Lester Bangs) in 1977.
Langford relocated to Chicago in 1992; since then, he’s crammed 48 hours into every day, sustaining incarnations of The Mekons while fronting country-roots devotees The Pine Valley Cosmonauts as well as The Waco Brothers (“half Clash/half Cash”), collated three volumes of anti-death penalty fundraisers (“The Executioner’s Last Songs”), squeezed out three brilliant solo discs, produced many other artists’ works, added his singular artwork to dozens of records/projects and sat in with or promoted countless other Chi-town area artists.
His splendid new “Gold Brick” (due in stores Tuesday) addresses the clash of America’s historical mythology with the realities of free-swinging power grabs, exploitation of the working class, the perverse implications of consumerism on the upwardly-reaching middle class and, ultimately, how all of our souls are damaged in the process.
But this sharp-witted, cerebral artist with the honey/gruff, everyman voice presents it all with well-paced, oft-sparking rock/pop/folk arrangements (including a deft re-working of Procol Harum’s “Salty Dog”) to seal the deal and sell the tale.
A powerful, penetrating record.
- Jim Musser