Angel Olsen and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (aka Will Oldham) are both having an incredibly busy year. Angel already released one of 2016’s best albums with My Woman, plus she contributed to the Mount Moriah and Cass McCombs albums. Will put out a Peel Sessions comp and a collab LP with Bitchin Bajas, plus contributed to LPs by Xylouris White and Matt Kivel (and definitely more that we’re forgetting). Both of them were also on that huge Grateful Dead tribute album. This week they’ll release an album together that pays tribute to another band, Mekons.
Read More: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Angel Olsen & friends releasing Mekons tribute LP this week (song stream) | http://www.brooklynvegan.com/bonnie-prince-billy-angel-olsen-friends-releasing-mekons-tribute-lp-this-week-song-stream/?trackback=tsmclip
Recorded last summer in Brooklyn, this kinetic live album collects new politically-charged songs from the British art-punk O.G.s—a call to arms for all those pushing against the tides of modern life.
Back in 1987, the ROIR label released a tape called New York—one of many rather roughshod titles from the then-cassette-only New York outpost. The quasi-legit collection almost sounded like a bootleg, the kind of thing that would be traded in dubs from fan to fan. New York was the only live Mekons album ever in-print (though it was reissued in 2001 as New York: On the Road 86-87). That changes now with Existentialism.
Similarly, Existentialism also often sounds like a boot, but that’s a deliberate artistic decision. It was reportedly recorded around a single microphone at the Jalopy Theater in Red Hook, Brooklyn. At times, the rhythms overwhelm, yet this isn’t precisely a record that rocks. The Mekons long ago began weaving in elements of American country and British folk, threading it through the nervy art-punk at their core, a maneuver that only gains resonance as the band slides into middle age; it’s defiance that has turned into a credo. Older they may be, but they’re restless, and when Existentialism was recorded in the summer of 2015, the songs were as new to the band as they were to the audience. The Mekons chose to cut the songs not long after composition, a move that only underscores the urgency behind the project.
Despite the haste, there are no stumbles on Existentialism, though there is rawness. The group is too good to let things careen out of control, but they’re smart enough to play upon the suggestion that things could. Certainly, this adds passion to the performance; it’s the sound of a great band creating great noise. The album pushes levels into the red, but sometimes it suggests more sonic detail than could be achieved from one mic. There’s little separation in the harmonies, and plenty of midrange smear, but instruments pop to the forefront.
Beneath the racket, there are ideas—some expanded upon in an accompanying 96-page book and the Mekonception video that documents the whole shebang—but they’re impossible to ignore in the songs themselves. Images of terror, upheaval, and loss float through the words. Turmoil bubbles to the surface on “Fear and Beer,” a pub singalong for the age of Brexit, but “1848 Now!” makes allusions to revolution past, one of several sly nods to history. The best musical tip of the hat is how “The Cell” plays with the melody of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” without ever following its contours.
Politics and tradition are nothing new to the Mekons, but what makes Existentialism resonate is that it’s an album of the moment, for the moment. As an aural document, it’s kinetic and crackling, a live recording that captures the excitement of a concert. As a complete piece, it says something powerful; it’s a call to arms for old punks, unrepentant artists, and assorted freaks, all pushing against the tides of modern life. It’s the Mekons and friends and family gathering together in a small room, shouting songs of protest and singing sad melodies, realizing there’s strength in being together, even if their numbers are dwindling.
Whether it’s forming a band without really knowing how to play their instruments, flirting with country music even though there aren’t many cowboys or honky-tonks in their native Great Britain or making a live album with an unrehearsed choir of nonprofessional singers, the Mekons like to throw themselves into the deep end of things and see what happens.
All of the above “experiments” have worked out pretty well. The Mekons are among the longest-lived and most daring bands to emerge from the U.K. punk era, in part because of how the octet is able to absorb other musical languages — country, for example — and make something uniquely their own out of them.
In some parallel universe, Mekons are huge rock stars. They’re worshiped for their legacy as first-wave Brit punks and adored for spending four decades evolving into something else entirely. Their hodgepodge of influences, from the Sex Pistols and Balfa Brothers to George Jones and King Tubby, only add to their popularity, and the one-time Leeds-based socialist collective are both recognized and respected as transformative pioneers.
It’s a nice thought. One that the band’s shamefully small legion of fans and advocates know is far more deserved than their status as perpetual underdogs.
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