Jon Langford and The Waco Brothers (Music Review)

One of my favorite December traditions is the annual Bloodshot Records Christmas sale. They always provide a good, inexpensive variety of their albums from their 15 years of history. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be discussing some of the CDs I picked up from last month’s sale. They aren’t recent releases, but as long as they’re new to me, they’re fair game for reviews!

All The Fame Of Lofty Deeds

Jon Langford - All The Fame Of Lofty Deeds

Jon Langford is undeniably the driving force behind Bloodshot, with cameos or songwriting credits on most of the albums that he doesn’t headline. Even his detractors have to admit that he blazed the trail that so many punkers-turned-country have followed.

However, I’m one of those detractors at times. As much as I respect his enthusiasm for country and his willingness to experiment, he just isn’t very country himself. The British accent and exaggerated rolling of his ‘R’s are like fingernails on a blackboard next to the traditional American music that he appropriates, and his experiments tend to fail more often than they succeed.

Despite his flaws, All The Fame Of Lofty Deeds demonstrates his excellent songwriting ability. This album may be only six years old, but I already recognize three of its songs from other (better) versions that have shown up over the years. The aggressive Nashville kiss-off “Over the Cliff” became a standout song on The Old ’97’s seminal album Wreck Your Life. When Minus Five covered “Sputnik 57” for a Bloodshot compilation album, it grabbed my attention and put that band on my radar. And, ironically, I knew “Nashville Radio” from another version that Langford himself recorded. In fact, that excellent song was the reason I bought All The Fame of Lofty Deeds. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the album version of the song was cut from 6 minutes to 3 1/2 not by removing some of the musical interludes or less important verses, but simply by speeding it up. The slow, mournful ballad is now inappropriately chipper and immediately forgettable.

“Nashville Radio” shows Langford’s problem in a nutshell. It’s not just that he experiments, but that he seems completely unaware of which a new ideas are worthwhile. Some songs on here are actually good: “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” opens the album with a confident sound that shows he can mutate country to his own vision at times, and “Hard Times” uses that upbeat sound from “Nashville Radio” in an appropriate time. “Sputnik 57” and “Over the Cliff” are both decent songs, and only sound disappointing when compared to the covers that other, better, bands have since made. When Langford missteps, though, it’s bad: “The Country Is Young” pleads with other nations to be patient with the United States, comparing the U.S. to a bratty youth who will someday grow into a responsible adult. There’s a place for that argument, when discussed between millenia-old European countries, but it comes across as insulting in an American country album. Besides, Langford can’t hold a consistent feel through it: When the listener finally gets used to the plodding, monotone sound, suddenly the line “You’ve gotta wipe it’s fat ass and buy it some toys” dashes the somber mood. Langford’s honest love of country comes through in his cover of “Trouble In Mind”, but it pales in comparison to countless other versions out there. (The album also has a faithful cover of Procol Harum’s “Homburg”, but the psychedelic prog sound of the original suits the song better than Langford’s acoustic approximation.)

All The Fame Of Lofty Deeds is a collection of excellent songs, all crippled by their execution. The good news is that I have almost everything I need to assemble a new CD that replaces most these songs with superior versions.

Cowboy In Flames

Waco Brothers - Cowboy In Flames

For an example of a successful experiment by Jon Langford, look at the Waco Brothers. They were a rock band first and a country band second, and thus sounded much more natural when mixed with Langford’s raspy scream. Someone unfamiliar with 1997’s Cowboy In Flames could be forgiven for expecting a punk album at first: The first sound you hear is Langford shouting “In this suburb of Babylon, we don’t like to wait!” followed immediately by pounding drums and guitar. No hint of country creeps in until the refrain.

When the country does enter more strongly, it feels much more appropriate than Langford’s later attempts. Deano Schlabowske (also of the band Dollar Store) shares vocal duties, and he sounds natural when setting a country swagger to rock. For example, “Do What I Say” is a clever, tongue in cheek take on the all-too-common misogyny in country music, and few other singers would have both the confidence to perform it and the earnestness to play it straight. When Langford sings, he finds approaches that work as well (such as mixing in a punk rock sloppiness on the album-closing “The Death Of Country Music”).

While not all the songs succeed (see “Dollar Dress” and “Dry Land”, which drag on for four minutes with nothing to say), most of them do. Especially notable are the three renditions of classic country songs; I do like traditional songs, and I have a soft spot for covers that recast them in harder, modern styles. These songs are uniformly excellent: That may not be a big surprise on “White Lightning”, which was always meant to thrash more than traditional country would allow, but it is impressive to hear the band interpret “Wreck On The Highway” in their style without compromising the original’s somber story. The third cover, “Big River”, was already aggressive when Johnny Cash wrote it, but The Waco Brothers toss off an effortless-sounding version that stands up to the original. This is a stark contrast to All The Fame Of Lofty Deeds, in which almost all of the songs could be replaced by better versions.

Cowboys In Flames can feel like a strange artifact, as the Alt Country sound has evolved in a very different direction in the decade since its release. Taken as a collection of great rock songs, though, it’s still enjoyable today. Langford’s later efforts like Lofty Deeds may have better songwriting, but The Waco Brothers demonstrate that the execution is what matters in country.

Jon Langford, All The Fame Of Lofty Deeds: C-

Waco Brothers, Cowboy In Flames: B+

  1. January 15th, 2011

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: