splendid > reviews > 1/20/2004
Punk Rock

Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "I'm So Happy"

Buy me now
"Everything old is new again" is a banal sentiment at the best of times, but it must be a particularly grating thought for music lovers, who've endured enough stylistic revivals and rebirths to last a lifetime. At this rate, our children's children will be scraping the back-side of the barrel-bottom, left with nothing more promising or artistically viable than a "banging rocks together and humming tunelessly" revival. (I hear there are already a few assholes in Williamsburg who are dressing in animal skins and duct-taping large rocks to their heads, but that could simply be a side-effect of drinking too much Pabst.)

So...does that mean that everything old, far from being new again, actually sucks ass? Of course not. Case in point: in 2002, when the Mekons were rehearsing for their 25th anniversary tour, they decided to dig out a handful of their oldest songs -- tracks from the late seventies and early eighties -- and give 'em a whirl. To everyone's delight, these relatively ancient Mekons tunes didn't reek of gratuitous nostalgia, but sounded fresh and vibrant and surprisingly relevant. Emboldened by their success, the Mekons resolved to re-record their now-modernized material. The resultant Punk Rock bears little resemblance to the commodified dross that passes for punk in 2004; it's proud, smart, defiantly working-class stuff that'll remind you why the movement mattered.

Culled from early Mekons singles and the group's first two full-lengths, and stopping short of Fear and Whiskey's sidelong lurch into the badlands of proto-alt-country, Punk Rock is an eclectic delight. Opener "Teeth"'s driving (but melodic) desperation is bluntly one-upped by "I'm So Happy"'s hypnotic groove, shouty vocals and burgeoning background conflagration of guitar, saz (sic) and accordion. Songs like this are almost a lost art: it's danceable but never deliberately so, angry but never overwrought, earnest but never showy. A modern hardcore song packs ten times the angst, but can't match the sincerity.

There's another nice juxtaposition later on. In "32 Weeks", an irate Jon Langford (I think) details the amount of time a typical working stiff will need to work to earn the cash to buy the necessities of modern life (two hours to buy a bottle of whiskey, a week to buy a mattress, 32 weeks to buy a car, and so on); after all, every man wants to "get a job / get a car / get a bird!" There's something in the song's matter-of-factness that makes you want to do the math yourself -- and the numbers still add up (as long as you're talking about a used car). When their value is expressed as chunks of your own life, your possessions seem rather pointless, don't they? It's ironic, then, that "Work All Week"'s protagonist is so willing to "work all week to buy your ring / extra hours to get real gold / You know I'll buy you anything." The song's cheery calypso melody hides a nugget of cynicism -- the protagonist's plan to impress his wife (or would-be wife) with an endless stream of gifts is as shallow as it is earnest -- but the sheer good-naturedness will make you smile as you listen. Then again, "32 Weeks"' clinical approach may be safer; in the credit-strapped 21st century, the guy from "Work All Week" will have to work 3,124 weeks to pay off his $10,000 in revolving credit card debt...

Other highlights include the trance-inducingly resonant "This Sporting Life", all charged atmosphere and borderline a capella vocals, and a trio of quintessential punk tunes: the yobbish "Never Been in a Riot", "Fight the Cuts" and the epochal "Dan Dare". These last few, along with "I'm So Happy" and "32 Weeks", are the songs you'll want to play for every slack-jawed fifteen year-old would-be punk-rocker you know, because they embody the best things about punk rock: they are gloriously chaotic, ramshackle and real, and sound like the work of people who cling desperately to day jobs because they've got rent and other bills to pay.

25-odd years after they first recorded these fifteen songs, the Mekons have hit middle age. They've endured the major label meat grinder, earned boatloads of cred and a massive, cultish fanbase, and their successes have been hard-won -- infrequent, but unsullied by compromise. Perhaps that's why Punk Rock rings so true: the Mekons may be older, but their values haven't changed.



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