As a songwriter, performer, producer and general alt-country agitator, Jon Langford carries a considerable discography. Add these to the list: A solo debut he produced for Chumbawamba frontman Danbert Nobacon, and the latest installment from the Mekons, the art-punk mothership that brought Langford to prominence exactly 30 years ago.
Nobacon is a difficult character to reinvent. Stripped of the novelty dance thumps of his former band of pop anarchists, he seems to be a residual Tom Waits. His indistinctive singing voice is not helped by the ample space Langford and his Chicago cohorts create in their grinding away behind him.
Nobacon is armed with a worthy agenda — guess what, he dislikes neo-cons, religious fundamentalists, ringtones and Richard Nixon — but too many of these ramshackle sea chanteys, country blues and minstrel songs are so literal, they sound like complaints stuffed artlessly into music. Plus, for a singer infused with the soul of a pub singer who has read a lot of books, his literary bent lacks the storytelling charm of, say, the Decemberists.
Comparably, nothing is as it seems on Natural, the first set of new Mekons songs in five years. Its title suggests campfire camaraderie, which is only about half right. The British collective prods troubling themes through a curious interlocking of folk instruments (accordion, vibes, and always a harmonica) with a blur of voices. But rather than settle for the comfort those familiar sounds suggests, the band insists on filtering them through bent fairy tales. And, parents: None are bedtime appropriate.
The relaxed, back-porch approach of these songs masks their creepy, sometimes sinister deliverance. Gang singing replaces solo vocals most of the time, and they’re more mourning than celebratory. Armageddon, human sacrifice and a diminishing natural world are themes, but in their approach, the Mekons out-psych Devendra Banhart and other neo-folkies. This band’s brand of folk reggae, dusty ambiance and call-and-response exotica rarely carries any pretense, and the noisy fills and oblique quirks sound more naturally sewn together than borrowed to fit a certain posture.
Natural is lit with mystery, but the fun is unwrapping its layers. It opens on a high note: “Dark Dark Dark” follows a clunky beat with the band describing some seriously pissed-off trees. “High flying donkeys have gone astray/Satan’s longing is here to say,” Tom Greenhalgh sings. From there it’s downhill all the way, which in this case is very satisfying.