Bloodshot says: You may know Sally and Jon from their decades-long stint in the ongoing punk/art experiment The Mekons, Jon’s leadership role in the country mayhemists the Waco Brothers, or Sally’s country chanteuse alter-ego Cowboy Sally. I suppose there’s a chance you may not know them at all.
Here’s your chance to hear them together on a numbered Limited Edition of 2000 8 song EP in a special paperboard sleeve with Langford cover art. It’s available only through Bloodshot’s mail order and website, very select stores and from Jon and Sally on tour.
Songs of False Hope and High Values has a stripped-down, but not sparse, campfire feel full of jaunty and crushing songs of hope desperation and heartbreak. It’s a couple of wide-eyed Brits wandering through the vast expanses of America soaking in all the grand myths, disappointments and shattered plans that have become part of the roadside scenery.
With kind permission from Roy Kasten / The St. Louis Riverfront Times
The EP begins with an enigma, opening out into cinematic fable: “I’d be riding horses if they’d let me / Sleep outside and not take fright / Ride the range and never worry / I’d disappear into the night.” Temptation, death, a poor boy or girl fleeing some blind justice, some undeclared crime: the stuff of folk music. Jon Langford and Sally Timms’ new *Songs of False Hope and High Values* (Bloodshot) steps gingerly between politically-charged folksiness–Langford’s precise but impassioned take on Eric Von Schmidt’s protest classic “Joshua Gone Barbados”–and the stylized, intellectual wordsmithing and raw, flashless musicality of the duo’s most important band, The Mekons. It’s a modest, instantly convincing work of folk art. “The record came about because Sally and I were doing the Calgary Folk Festival,” Langford says. “We put together a short tour and decided we needed a record as well. I had a few tracks, Sally had some things she wanted to do. We recorded a lot of it in my home, and some of it sounds better than the studio tracks.”
If the names Langford, Timms, and the Mekons mean nothing to you, then you’ve been boycotting the RFT music section; perhaps you’ve just returned from 20 years in Kamchatka. The Mekons have been a British folk-punk collective since 1979, and few bands have survived so much critical slathering, or have perplexed so many. “The Mekons had this folk thing in England in the ’80s,” Langford says, “but it never really worked for us. We just played what we wanted to play. Like any clique, the majority of people in that clique were fairly conservative. It’s the same in alternative country. The Handsome Family have had that problem. But maybe by donning an acoustic guitar, it’s like meeting those people half way.”
If the three week tour and limited edition 8 song EP were casually assembled, the music–acoustic guitars, banjos, dobros, bicycle bells–intimates more. Why Timms is such a compelling interpreter of country music becomes clear on “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain,” a Willie Nelson song virtually every country singer alive has attempted, the last song, so say reports, to pass Elvis Presley’s lips before going cold. Timms’ voice is just so damp and blue, just such a dying ember, just such a drifting memory untethered through the ages. She doesn’t sing as well as Kitty Wells, but she embodies the song’s spirit. On Dolly Parton’s “Down From Dover,” the bloodline–working class, rural, gothic, cursed–between the Anglo-American folk landscape and the British folk tradition turns viscerally, undeniably country. Timms whispers with grave, icy death-watch sensuality, while banjo and mandolin tremble like nerves passing through a fever. Langford’s originals (four co-written with Timms) join writerly smarts and proletarian vernacular in images of holocaust–”Good-bye Dr. Strangelove, he knew he had to go”–and souls “evolving discreetly,” objects flying up magically into hands, uncontrollable dreams, and horses jumping hoops of fire. That’s the stuff of folk music, what Bob Dylan called “historical-traditional music…something that nobody can touch.” Langford, Timms, Jon Rauhouse (on various stringed things), and bassist Cherilyn DiMond (of the defunct Meat Purveyors) will try to get close enough for touching this week. Bet they’ll get as close as they dare.
The two primary members of the Mekons, perhaps the most prolific post-punk band still in existence, continue the trend with this limited edition EP, available exclusively through their label’s website. The Mekons first pioneered the subgenre of “alt-country” on their seminal 1985 LP, Fear and Whiskey, and they’ve revisited it many times over the years, but this record essentially plays as a straight country outing. It’s a natural progression, but it’s hardly anything new for the duo, either. It also sounds very little like the Mekons– even the subdued incarnation found on their last album, the sublime Journey to the End of the Night. The instrumentation here is of the stringed acoustic variety, which might work were the production not absolutely dry. And the lack of percussion doesn’t help, either.
The best moments on Songs of False Hope and High Values are pleasantly reminiscent of the more overtly countrified moments on Smog’s Red Apple Falls. They’re pretty few, though. Sally Timms and Jon Langford seem to be attempting an expansive appraisal of the mythos of American “western” themes through song, from the perspective of outsiders. The lyrics are vague, however, and the melodies clichéd examples of the genre.
“Watching the Horizon” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” are by far the worst– such pat, boring, generalized “country” tunes that they could have been written by anybody with the slightest knowledge of the form. “Horses,” “I Picked Up the Pieces,” and “Anything Can Happen” are a bit better, in that they could have almost stood alongside most of the material from the last Mekons album. Still, they’re barely fleshed out and given the same banjo ‘n’ mandolin treatment that makes the other tracks sound so trite.
The standout track on Songs of False Hope is a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Down from Dover.” Okay, read that line again and just soak it in for a minute. Got it? The standout track is by Dolly. Fucking. Parton. From Dollywood. Sally Timms’ reading is subtle and affecting, though it does seem shameful that Parton’s concise lyrics should sum up the pastoral visions of the album more effectively than any of Timms’ own awkward ramblings.
The Mekons have proven themselves one of the most durable and and diverse bands of their era, and clearly, they still know how to make a good record. But I can’t reconcile most of the music here with the band that wrote “Learning to Live on Your Own.” That’s okay, though, since it’s not technically the same band. In light of their continued importance, it’s easy enough to forgive and forget this little footnote from their frontpersons.
-D. Erik Kempke