Jon Langford & Skull Orchard - "Haunted" (Old Devils)
Here’s a confession: The Mekons are the only group whose “selected lyrics” collection, Hello Cruel World, I actively sought and purchased. There are a couple of reasons, and one should never overlook the poetry and tartness of the words behind these strange, elusive songs, or the depth of the research — Honky Tonkin’ has to be about the only pre-alt-country album whose reference list includes conceptual artists Art & Language, surrealist Guillame Appolinaire, and an Alison Assiter essay from the Radical Philosophy journal. (They really could have given Scritti Politti a run for their money.)
No, the main reason Hello Cruel World takes pride of place in my bookshelf is much simpler — sheer dedication. Mekons fans are a dedicated, near-obsessive lot. Hand in hand with this commitment comes the understanding that the group’s failings are every bit as endearing and important as their successes. In fact, they’re often more instructive. So when you first hear head Mekon Jon Langford’s Old Devils and you write it off as bald pub rock, with touches of maudlin country, it’s another victory for Mekons mythology.
But these songs sink their claws in slowly, surprisingly, in deceptive ways. Langford’s group Skull Orchard play with deftness, and with an odd tang in some of their moves, like the spindly guitars of “Pieces Of The Past.” Langford’s observational flair and socio-critical compass are both well in evidence — see “Getting Used To Uselessness” for the former, “Strange Way To Win Wars” for the latter. And I could swear his voice sounds stronger than before, with enough of its English turn retained that there’s a slight but welcome incongruity between Langford’s delivery and the Americana of the backing.
If anything bothers me about Old Devils, it’s how straight Skull Orchard sometimes play it — instead of the haphazardness of The Mekons, what Luc Sante called their “cargo-cult exquisite-corpse reinvention of country,” here there’s not much reinvention in evidence. But the edges are in the lyrics, and with Langford they’re always sharp, the bitterness lurking behind the honeyed tongue, as though mere lives are only worth eulogizing if the bitterness hasn’t faded. It’s last orders at the pub, and the barflies are reflecting on “the ruins of their life” – Langford’s “Haunted” plays on the jukebox. It’d be a perfect way to hear this quietly great album.