The Welsh-born veteran of the 70s UK art-punk scene as founder and leader of The Mekons as well as mainstay of The Three Johns and The Waco Brothers, not to mention collaborations with Sally Timms, The Sadies, Chip Taylor and Rosie Flores, Jon Langford has been based in Chicago since the 90s, during which time he's recorded seven studio albums for the label, one of them twice. This, his eighth, was recorded at Muscle Shoals with the area's assorted world famous sessioneers alongside hot Nashville pedal steel guitarist Pete Finney, guitarists John Szymanski, Will McFarlane and Grant Johnson and singers Bethany Thomas, Tawny Newsome. and mountain soprano Tomi Lunsford.
Firmly rooted in Americana musically and the south lyrically, it opens with 'Poor Valley Radio', evidence that he's not lost his Welsh accent, coloured by twanged guitar and pedal steel on a song of two lovers driving back to their roots, the tempo picking up for the decidedly 60s influenced pounding beat of 'Natchez Trace' with its cascading guitar chords that somehow puts me in mind of a cross between Nick Lowe and The Monkees.
Things get slower and more soulful with 'I Thought He Was Dead', the lead vocals taken, as if often the case throughout the album, by one of his female back-up singers (guessingly Thomas, as there's no credits info). Whether the line about "he sang Storm on the Ocean" is a reference to the gospel song written by Bishop Ronald E. Brown or the one by the Carter Family, it fits a running theme of time passing, restlessness, a need to find home and goals not achieved that are also to be found on 'Fish Out Of Water', the pedal steel soaked 'His Masterpiece', sung by Newsome, and 'What's My Name?' The latter's a song that references how black heavyweight champ Ernie Terrell inadvertently called Mohammed Ali by his previous name of Cassius Clay, hence the latter taunting him in every round with 'what's my name?'
The racial subtext here also veins twangy Lunsford duet 'In Oxford, Mississippi' with its allusions to the Confederate legacy and it's clear that several of these numbers have their roots in real figures, but, while there's mention of Jimmie Rodgers and the chugging 'Snake Behind Glass' (also featuring Lunsford) includes reference to Johnny Cash, things are kept deliberately ambiguous.
But that just adds to the resonance and power of the lyrics which tend to work on an emotional rather than a literal level on quasi-narrative numbers like the slow bluesy duet 'I Felt My Courage Fail' with lines like "It's getting late but I can't get off this folding bed, I took my keys and put them in the mail." On top of which, the melodies are uniformly catchy, whether informed by country influences, like 'Mystery', or, as on 'Indestructible', chiming 60s pop, and big on hooks and choruses too, ensuring this is never less than highly listenable.
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