The weirdest thing about the music on Jon Langford’s third solo album is how normal it is. In his twenty-five-plus years as a professional musician (leading bands such as the Mekons, the Waco Brothers, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and others), Langford has always cast his net wide, embracing a range of musical styles. From the ’85 country-rock masterpiece Fear and Whiskey to the ’04 punk-rock minor masterpiece Punk Rock, from the Mekons’ early anarcho-thrash to the Cosmonauts’ Bob Wills tribute album, Langford and his rotating cast of similarly open-minded mates have, at one point or another, made nearly every rock and roll form their own.
Now Langford has gone ahead and made a great straight-ahead, no-frills, normal-sounding rock record. Upon hearing Gold Brick for the first time, I immediately thought of the radio-programmer’s term AOR (for “adult-oriented rock”), even though it’s a label I loathe. (Really, how useful can a descriptor be if it’s just as easily applied to the best of Springsteen and the barrel-scraping worst of Matchbox Twenty?) But the music in Gold Brick shares certain key aspects with the AOR aesthetic, if an “aesthetic” it be – the clean, country-ish mid-tempo rhythms, fleshed out with rollicking piano and cheesy-in-a-good-way guitar leads; the un-tricky chord progressions and hooks; the melodies, all straightforward like British pub songs. Hope it’s not too corny/romantic of me to imagine roomfuls of pint-waving workers bellowing out Langford’s words in drunken unity, but that’s exactly the picture that comes to mind.
And it isn’t just the music’s tone that makes me think of that image. As anyone familiar with his work knows, Langford’s got the politics, speaking truth to power, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted and all that good stuff. His deeply felt concern for the working class is reflected in Gold Brick‘s accessible song forms as well as in its incisive lyrics. But Langford is rarely so explicit about that concern (with two notable exceptions: “Workingman’s Palace” early in the album and “Lost in America” late). The rest of the time his words merely evoke the plight of the struggling masses, sometimes with obliquely worded slogans (“Keep the world in your sights/ They’ve got the lid on too tight”), but mostly with a series of fraught, brilliant images, scattered across the album’s twelve songs. A broken jukebox in an old pub. A man in the bath who can’t seem to scrub the patina of “salt and mud and drifting debris” from his skin. A “dream of a gold brick.” A “candle that flickers in the eye of the storm.” I don’t normally advocate reading the lyric sheet while listening to an album, but with Langford, it’s always worth doing at least once.
As you would expect from an avowed leftist, Langford spends a good portion of Gold Brick implicitly critiquing the good old Yew-nited States and the perverse, futile notion of the American dream (best expressed by the hapless narrator of the two-chord “Dreams of Leaving,” who sings of being “at the bottom of the pecking order/ where dreams of leaving are no more”). But unlike, say, the Clash in the late ’70s – or himself at that same time, for that matter – the Wales-born Langford isn’t so bored with the U.S.A. His attempt to impose his European obsession with class onto the United States, his adopted homeland since ’91, feels like an act of love, not reflexive anti-Americanism. I’m not sure what George W. would have to say to him (actually, I think I have a pretty good idea), but on behalf of America, I’d like to thank Langford for working hard and fighting the good fight. We need more people like him writing more optimistic songs such as “Buy It Now,” “Anything Can Happen,” and the positively Whitman-esque “All Roads Lead Back to Me.” And the more “normal” – and hence, more populist – he decides to make his music, the better.
Reachout International Records Web site