They’ve survived the demise of two labels, the departure of numerous A&R reps and the fickle winds of critical approbation. They’ve recorded two of underground rock’s signature albums, the raw alt-country-before-it-was-hip of 1985’s Fear & Whiskey and their major label swan song, The Mekons Rock’n’Roll, and yet they maintain a lower profile than the friends of the teenagers from “American Idol.” Maybe after 25 years, they’ve earned the opportunity to luxuriate in their marginalization and rest on their laurels. Not that they would, for unlike the prog rock dinosaurs they sought to replace, the Mekons’ 20-something album is equal to their early promise and continues to stir the styles that comprise their musical stew. Veins of gospel, country, reggae, punk, rock and Irish folk can be found on their latest album, OOOH! (Out of Our Heads), cross-pollinating in the band’s unique musical hothouse. Take the album opening, “Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem,” for example. It begins with a haunting, didgeridoo-like trill, and is soon joined by a spiky guitar bit that’s a spitting image of the one from Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart.” Tribal rhythms emerge from among chanted, gospel-choir vocals, underscored by Sally Timms plaintive wail and Jon Langford’s strident baritone, as he recounts those who have bucked prevailing orthodoxy from the Quakers, Ranters and Muggletonians to socialist leader William Morris and longtime British MP Tony Benn. This miniature tour de force is followed by “Dancing in the Head,” a song that wraps a Middle Eastern guitar line around primal African percussion, over a wafting vocal line about ancient trephining mores, for a sound as consistently disorienting as a Pakistani opium dream. At turns as spare and parched as Texas country (“This Way Through the Fire”), tenderly torch on the languid “Hate is the New Love,” and as resolutely resilient as the country that birthed the traditionally Irish-flavored “Lone Pilgrim,” the band’s clever, expansive musicality is both a product and the source of their longevity. Given the quality of this and 2000’s Journey to the End of the Night, there’s no suggestion we’ll ever wish them to go.
E-mail Chris Parker at [email protected].