All the fame of lofty deeds – Reviews
from pp. 134-135
All The Fame Of Lofty Deeds
The hardest working man in show business? That’s easy: Jon
Langford. Since 1998, he’s been the key man on more than a dozen
albums with the Sadies, Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Waco Brothers, Sally
Timms, and perhaps first among equals, the Mekons, the infinitely
evolving, organically changing entity that sprouted from the first
wave of British punk in Leeds in 1977.
Common to all of Langford’s prolificacy is his dart-aim with
increasing accuracy at the junction where art, intellect, politics
and fun meet. That he success so convincingly on his first two
albums of 2004 is not just reason to cheer, but reason to suggest the
singer/writer/musician/painter for a MacArthur Fellows grant.
ALL THE FAME OF LOFTY DEEDS, credited as a Langford solo album,
shares some texture with last year’s MAYORS OF THE MOON by Langford &
His Sadies. For me, MAYORS generated deeper, richer emotional
resonances than any of his previous work. LOFTY DEEDS comes close.
With typical erudition, the title comes from Andreas Gryphils’ 17th- century poem “All Is Vanity”: “The fame of lofty deeds vanish like a
On this song-cycle, Lofty Deeds is a character, a country music
archetype whose story of “drink and pills and Nashville Radio” is the
Hank/Elvis rocket arc from poverty to glory to a premature funeral
A confident country and midwestern sound runs through ALL THE FAME OF
LOFT DEEDS, as in many of Langford’s now-Chicago-based projects
combining rural instrumentation and urban grit. Frequent sidekick
Jon Rice adds dobro, mandolin and guitar, and the Pine Valley
Cosmonauts turn up on two tracks, but foremost is Langford’s full- throated Welsh-accented singing.
Langford stays in character on upbeat ravers such as “Hard Times”
and “Over The Cliff”, but he seems to be speaking from the outside
on “Sputnik 57”, which connects the space program to American
imperialism, and “The Country Is Young”, a cultural critique in which
he plays sentimental good cop to DeTocqueville’s bad cop.
There are two covers. The 1927 classic “Trouble In Mind”, the
template here from Bob Wills, offers an appropriate valedictory,
while Procol Harum’s “Homburg” is a deliciously left-field but
Enriching the mix on tracks such as “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”,
Langford seems to be plucking a mbira, the Zimbabwean metal-strips- inside-a-gourd finger piano, which is also listed as one of his
instruments on the Mekons’ new album. PUNK ROCK is a new collection
of old songs (circa 1977-81) the Mekons dusted off for their recent
25th anniversary concerts. Once performed with “rank
amateurishness,” as TROUSER PRESS puts it, these songs now benefit
from the Mekons informal skillfulness.
Drummer Stephen Goulding, a great player even before he anchored
Graham Parker’s Rumour, gives a steady backbone for Langford and
Mekons co-founder Tom Greenhalgh to rank on noteworthy artifacts such
as “Never Been In A Rio”, as they keep shouting for social justice
and against hypocrisy. The demands need to be made now as much as
they did all those years ago, and Langford and company still have the
sense to make them — not on behalf of any Party, but as an
invitation to a party.
— WAYNE ROBINS
Prolific alt-country godfather’s State of the Union address
Reviewed by Nick Catucci
It’s usually best to run from entertainers who spit, “Success on someone else’s terms don’t mean a fuckin’ thing.” But Jon Langford isn’t flipping off his audience, which he’s blessed with life lessons and rallying cries for a quarter-century, starting with his stalwart role in England’s cowpunk greats the Mekons. These mini-country-rock masterpieces, which masquerade as minimalist sketches, attack cutthroat capitalism’s notion of achievement. Langford’s half-croon, half-snarl fills the rough-hewn, fast-shuffling numbers with rude, waggish poetics: The twangy “Sputnik 57” spotlights the “poor” and “doomed” who lived beneath the Russian satellite’s orbit, while the piano-and-guitar ballad “The Country Is Young” imagines imperial America as a petulant baby too big for its britches. Trust him — he has bought diapers for two of his own.
Wednesday, April 21, 2004; Page C05
ALL THE FAME OF LOFTY DEEDS
Jon Langford is that rare breed of punk rocker, one who has managed to find a way to stay vital into his dotage. Okay, at 46 Langford ain’t exactly ancient. Still, the once and current leader of British luminaries the Mekons is completing his third decade of musicmaking. And amazingly enough, the guy just now appears to be hitting his stride.
Maybe the change of scenery helped. Langford relocated from England to Chicago in 1992, and since then he’s morphed from a smart-alecky punk with a “Hee Haw” fetish into a genuine alt-country kingpin, fronting such acts as the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and, more prominent, renowned cowpunks the Waco Brothers. Langford’s peculiar gift is for lacing leftist politics through twangy foot-stompers, and on “All the Fame of Lofty Deeds,” the singer-guitarist’s second solo album, he threads that needle once again.
“Sputnik 57” sets the story of the space race to a
tune, while “The Country Is Young,” a lovely country-folk ballad, likens America to a fat, selfish baby without once seeming condescending. Elsewhere, on “Nashville Radio,” Langford serves up a country-pop ditty that would make Buck Owens proud while seeming to conflate the drug-addled tragedies of Kurt Cobain and Hank Williams. The result is a cautionary tale about the perils of disposable celebrity culture.
All told, it’s tough to resist calling Langford’s latest his best yet. Ambitious and smart, “All the Fame of Lofty Deeds” is an affectionate critique of America sung from the point of view of one seriously bemused expatriate.
— Shannon Zimmerman
From the Santa Fe New Mexican
Writer: Steve Terrell
On his new solo album, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds, Jon Langford tackles one of his favorite themes, both in his music and his paintings — the travails and temptations of country singers in post-war America.
The Welshman Langford has played “Lost Highway” with The Mekons and sung of “The Death of Country Music” with The Waco Brothers. As a visual artist, he’s known for his disturbing depiction of Hank Williams as a Saint Sebastian-like martyr — arrows sticking into his body, ribs sticking out of his skin — and Bob Wills signing a recording contract. A few years ago he did a series of granite tombstones with his favorite deceased country stars surrounded by skulls and rattlesnakes and booze bottles.
So once again Langford tells the story, which seems to be a distillation of everything that makes America attractive and everything that makes it repulsive.
It’s a story we’ve all heard, a tale of the farm boy Faust. It’s the story of Hank Williams, the story of Elvis Presley. The story of George Jones channeling his demon duck. It’s the myth of Johnny B. Goode, who’s grown old and jaded after seeing the inside of too many jail cells and divorce courts, seeing too many close views of too many barroom floors.
It might be the story of Faron Young, who took his own life decades after he broke the promise he made when he sang, “I’m gonna live fast, love hard, die young and leave a beautiful memory.” But Faron’s final chapter doesn’t seem to match the character of Langford’s hero, Lofty Deeds. After all, the last song on the album is a rousing cover of the blues/country classic “Trouble in Mind,” where, in spite of the singer’s threat to lay his head on the railroad tracks, the singer holds out the faith that “the sun’s gonna shine on my backdoor someday.”
But Langford’s album isn’t just an account of bad luck and human weaknesses. It’s a subtle indictment of a society that would drive its greatest voices to drink, drugs and despair.
Lofty Deeds is a man of his time, and his time was the Cold War era.
The song “Sputnik 57,” with its chunka chunka Johnny Cash rhythm, tells of the paranoia of those times, linking the Russians’ launching of the sputnik satellite to the Vietnam war to Neil Armstrong. “That’s one small step for man/One giant leap from Vietnam,” Langford growls.
And yet Langford, who has lived in the U.S. for a decade or so and is raising his children here, doesn’t get overly strident. In “The Country is Young,” a slow gospelish country tune, he is forgiving, and more than a little paternalistic about his adopted homeland: “So big and so clumsy .. You gotta wipe its fat ass and buy it some toys …”
Although the story he’s telling is tragic, this is hardly a dour album. Langford captures the joy of Lofty’s career as well as the tragedy. There’s a crazy Cold War cowboy bravado in the face of certain disaster in happy sounding songs like “Hard Times” and “Over the Cliff.” The ride in that song, with its driving honky tonk piano, sounds like so much fun, you’ll want to go over the cliff with him.
But in the dirge-like title song the consequences start to manifest: “When the candles snuff and things get rough your enemies will seek your company/ When you’re all alone, pick up the phone/ I’m skull and bones/ remember me.”
This song is followed by one of Langford’s greatest tunes, “Nashville Radio,” done here in an up-tempo style. With a melody similar to “Rocky Top,” the narrator here is the ghost of Hank Williams, who sings of getting kicked off the Grand Old Opry and getting arrested only to have a jailer ask for his autograph.
“Doctor, doctor, please sign my prescription/ I’m in trouble again/Ever since I was a little tiny baby/ I just couldn’t get rid of the pain.”
This version has a power of its own. But the definitive “Nashville Radio” is found on an obscure limited edition EP called Gravestone. (Now out of print. I own copy number 368.) In its previous incarnation it was slow and dreamy with an electric sitar and a reggae-like bass, done as the first part of a medley with “The Death of Country Music.”
You’ll sympathize with Lofty’s plight and wonder why our favorite doomed entertainers keep making the same bad choices and stupid mistakes. You question why the entertainment industry seems to always create stars only to chew them up and spit them out. You wonder about a public that is thrilled to see some star go over the cliff. You wonder about yourself.
But in the end, Lofty’s story only begs the question. Would the music of Hank Williams — or Robert Johnson or Kurt Cobain — be as haunting or powerful if not for their pain? To steal a line from Tom Waits, if we could exorcize their demons, would their angels leave too?
From: Pop matters
by Will Stenberg
The first thing you learn upon moving to Chicago: this is Langford’s town. The raspy-voiced Welshman, most famous for his work in the seminal punk band the Mekons, seems omnipresent in the City of Big Shoulders.
He’s not a bad figurehead for Chicago, really. An immigrant, Langford is cutting-edge but rooted in tradition, working class but cosmopolitan, tough as steel but sensitive and creative, and a family man who’s retained a healthy love for loud music and cheap beer. In short, he’s Chicago through and through. Anyone requiring proof can open up The Chicago Reader on any given Thursday and probably find a notice for another show by his most active band, the Waco Brothers, and it’s hard to ignore the seemingly endless stream of Langford-related releases pumped out by his Chicago label, Bloodshot Records — whether they’re by the Waco Brothers, by Langford and fellow Mekon Sally Timms, by his country tribute act the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, or something from left-field like his Mayors of the Moon with the Sadies, or Executioner’s Last Songs, an anti-death-penalty benefit he put together with a whole bevy of like-minded friends. And while you’d think he might be satisfied with being revered as an underground rocker (Lester Bangs worshipped the Mekons), respected as an activist, and admired as an elder-statesman by the city’s legions of indie rockers, punk rockers, and aspiring alt-country songsters, on top of all these accomplishments he’s made significant headway as a visual artist, and his eerie, accomplished paintings of blindfolded cowboys and skeletal country singers have shown all over the city, the country, and the world.
His latest release, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds, is a worthy addition to his musical catalog. Billed as a concept album tracing the rise and fall of an aspiring honky-tonker (Lofty Deeds) whose own career echoes the glory and depravity of the USA, the “concept album” tag should be taken with a grain of salt. A couple of songs relate directly to the Lofty Deeds story, but most could be on any of his records, and there’s also two covers — one a live track — and two revamps of older Langford compositions: an up-tempo country version of the formerly dub-reggae “Nashville Radio”, and a piano-and-guitar-driven remake of his great kiss-off “Over the Cliff” (“success on someone else’s terms don’t mean a fuckin’ thing”).
If this sounds like a random collection of all things Langford held together by a loose concept — well, that’s about what it is, and it’s pretty great. Lofty Deeds features some of his sharpest, most biting lyrics, with his impassioned vocals at the top of the mix, and our times demand the kind of incisive political commentary Langford provides so well. To a bluesy hillbilly backing of dobros, accordions, mandolins, and guitars, Langford brings an outsider’s sharp perspective to America, with the Lofty Deeds story surfacing occasionally as an anchor.
It does start out like a concept album, with Langford intoning ominously “You are yourself at the center of the story / Your fate falls through your hands” over an aggressive slide guitar. The song, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”, takes its title from a traditional bluegrass number, but is all Langford from start to finish, detailing Lofty’s disillusionments on his rise to fame (“You have your reasons to believe in people / But people aren’t all the same”).
If there’s a strict narrative, though, I lose it soon after, and more than anything the record comes across as a sort of “State of the Union” address by an aging punk-rocker from Wales. This could be abysmal, of course, but Langford is able to write political songs with just the right mix of abstract poetics and social commentary, avoiding both strident propaganda and wishy-wash abstractions (plus his Welsh accent, with the best rolled r’s this side of John Lydon, doesn’t hurt; he could sound lyrical singing the UN Charter). On “Constanz”, a honky-tonk number to which he brings the necessary optimism of a lifetime leftist, he reminds us that “The country is not stupid / Even though it’s silent / It still has eyes and ears / It just can’t find its mouth”. Later, on “The Country Is Young”, he compares America to a toddler still finding its feet, still imagining itself as the center of the cosmos.
The two remakes are nice to have, since both were previously hard to find, with “Nashville Radio” available on an EP and “Over the Cliff” on one of Bloodshot’s stellar compilations. “Nashville Radio” is yet another tribute to country music’s tragic martyr and resident genius, Hank Williams, but powerful and distinctive in that it’s sung from the point of view of Hank himself. Here, presumably, it could apply also to Lofty Deeds, but as a tribute to Hank all the specifics are there, and it’s a stunning success. “They threw me off of the Grand Ole Opry / ‘Cause I couldn’t behave / Never knew how many friends I had / ‘Til I was lying in a cold dark grave”. It’s a damn good summary of the fall of one of popular music’s greatest stars.
There’s a particularly powerful verse towards the end of the song — a little heavy-handed, perhaps, but the subject needs passion, not subtlety — with Langford-as-Hank crying, “I gave my life to country music / Took my pills and lost / Now they don’t play my songs on the radio / It’s like I never was”. It’s a strange irony of fate, the champions authentic country music has found since it was buried under a deluge of exposed navels, pitch-corrected vocals, and a distinctly middle-class mentality. From Jack White to Rick Rubin to Norah Jones, people from all across the musical spectrum have been recognizing the worth of this quintessentially American form, and the best of them, like Jon Langford, have found ways to take a classic, traditional idiom and invest it with their own personality. Cheers to Jon Langford for bringing his weird, articulate, impassioned self to Chicago, and into the fray.
Jon Langford is nothing if not prolific. In between making music with the Waco Brothers, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, the Sadies, the Mekons, Sally Timms and others – not to mention his painting (featured on the CD cover) – Langford took time to put out, by Bloodshot’s count, his second solo album.
Clocking in at just under 30 minutes, “Lofty Deeds” does not necessarily live up to its name, but it is a pleasurable performance by the always reliable Langford nonetheless. You get Langford’s thoughtful political and social commentary on songs like “The Country is Young” and “Sputnik 57,” fun toe-tappers like “Hard Times” and “Nashville Radio” and even a heartfelt Procol Harem cover, “Homburg.” Also included is a updated take of “Over the Cliff” released previously on a 1994 Bloodshot compilation and perhaps better known as performed by the Old 97s on “Wreck Your Life” (with Langford’s help). Langford gets help from the Cosmonauts on two tracks, including the just-right, album-ending live reading of Bob Wills’ classic “Trouble in Mind.”
– Andy Turner
by Robert Christgau
Some very rough guides to living in a nation that
won’t share and will never be the same
May 14th, 2004 6:00 PM
All the Fame of Lofty Deeds
Purportedly a concept album in which Mr. Deeds goes to Nashville because he’s outgrown his band, and life will never be the same because fame can do that (also death). Actually a bunch of songs in which Mr. Langford goes to Chicago because he can’t stand Margaret Thatcher, and life will never be the same because George W. Bush can do that (also Satan). The “hard road that always brings you back” has brought him back to where he once escaped, so now he’s considering Switzerland, yodel-ay-ee-oooo. True love aside, how the hell did he wind up in America? “The country is young . . . not too good on the sharing,” so let the zombies tear it apart. Only he loves its music, which sustains him even in the absence of one of the ad hoc bands he’ll never outgrow—the arrangements, early Cash with extras, are as committed as the singing we’ve learned to assume. The glory of America at war with its shame, and don’t bet it’ll hold up its head forever. A