Saturday, July 07, 2012

Fear and Whiskey (1985)

The first great thing about the Mekons' great fourth album is, of course, the title. It's so good it was almost too much to hope that it would be a good album too. But it is exactly that, indeed a great one. The surly slop of UK punk-rock turned out to fit like jigsaw puzzle pieces with the brooding resentment of country music in a way that even those assaying the attempt at the time (X, Gun Club, Meat Puppets, all Americans, for what that's worth) never quite managed. This is also a crossroads album. It's the fourth by the British punk-rock journeypersons—but I don't hear anything close to the extraordinary power of this in any of the earlier albums. It dwells in some miserable hell where music like this is the only relief afforded, a bracing, spooky, roaring attack textured by harp, fiddle, and steel guitar, and easy to fall into the habit of playing constantly. In moments it is beautifully awful, er, I mean awfully beautiful. They are playing as if their lives depended on it (by which I don't necessarily mean professionally) and, most exciting, they are suddenly possessed of genius instincts that play out impossibly true, as if they suddenly hit a hot hand at the craps table that no amount of drinking, whooping, and tomfoolery can cool. Everything they do here is a hit, a direct hit. "Chivalry" opens the album like a drunk Jonathan Richman, sounding the themes: "I was out late the other night / Fear and whiskey kept me going / I swore somebody held me tight / But now there's just no way of knowing." Followed by daffy CB radio shenanigans in "Trouble Down South." And so it goes: "Hard to Be Human Again," a basic but obsessively insinuating punk throbber. "Darkness and Doubt," a boggy country wallow that plays almost like send-up. "Psycho Cupid," a tone-and-word poem of great and chilling power enbreathed by Sally Timms. "Country" sounds like a mighty Clash anthem, a beautiful thing of tremendous power; it is one's cue at home to climb on a chair. Not one track is wasted. They are all great. The overall impact is unmistakable—on oneself, and on musical history. I don't know how you get to Wilco, Cowboy Junkies, Lambchop, Old 97's, and great swaths of alt-country without the Mekons and Fear and Whiskey.

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