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CD Review: Jon Langford – Gold Brick

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Jon Langford may have been born inside the belly of rock ‘n’ roll, but in his 30-year career he’s been all over the musical map. He’s best know as a founding member of the Mekons, a punk and then post-punk band out of Leeds, England, that traveled in the same circles as the Gang of Four and the Delta 5. One of their earliest singles, “Never Been in a Riot”, poked fun at the super-serious, bourgeois-revolutionary nonsense of “White Riot” by the Clash.

Unlike virtually any of their other late-70s contemporaries, the Mekons managed to stay together. They’re still a going concern now, with more than 20 albums to their credit. And with that kind of longevity comes respectability and, most importantly, opportunity.

Jon Langford has numerous and varied side projects to his credit. In the early 80s he formed the Three Johns with two other musicians (one, paradoxically, named Phillip) and a drum machine, hell-bent on having their funky musical revenge on Margaret Thatcher. Langford relocated to Chicago (home to Touch & Go/Quarterstick Records, which had just signed the Mekons) in the early 90s and expanded his musical palate to include country.

His work with the Waco Brothers and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, released by Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, takes Langford’s political consciousness and marries it to an appreciation for all of the great music that was then (and still is) ignored by the Nashville music establishment in favor of the forgettable, regrettable “hot, new country.” Langford lets his love for the George Joneses and Johnny Cashes of the world shine as he tries out his Welsh accent on American roots music. It’s a remarkably good fit, trilled “R”s and all.

In 1998, Langford released his first proper solo album, the majestic Skull Orchard. It was a musical trip home of sorts, with songs about Cardiff and the ports of the southern U.K. Gold Brick, Langford’s third solo record, released this week by ROIR Records, is rooted more in his adopted hometown of Chicago.

Gold Brick bears all the hallmarks of an artist who has the opportunity to scratch at every artistic itch he gets, and after such a long and brilliant career, he’s certainly earned it. This record features the rock ‘n’ roll Jon Langford at his most mellow, showcasing the piano playing of Pat Brennan, which takes the edge off the standard guitar/bass/drums lineup. Sometimes the piano veers into honky-tonk territory, and other times it lends a tenderness to some of the record’s ballads.

In 1986, the Mekons released The Edge of the World, an elegy for the death of the political and social dreams of punk rock in England. This fantastic record casts the band as defeated outcasts, literally adrift on an ocean of hopelessness. On Gold Brick, Langford has regained solid ground, but his quest is far from over. Broadly put, the album’s theme is exploration (the record’s subtitle is “Lies of the Great Explorers”, after all). His songs ask the question: What does the explorer do when there’s nothing left to explore?

Always keenly aware of the plight of the working man, Langford paints portraits of people trapped by economics and circumstance, relegated to the “Workingman’s Palace” (the dingy corner bar) for solace and empty camaraderie. He sings about how easy it is to lose your way and, as on the title track, how people immerse themselves in the ordinariness of routine to avoid the abyss of loneliness and irrelevance.

Gold Brick is Jon Langford as his most introspective, with a tenderness to the music that is not typical for this normally hard-driving rocker. As he has shown time and again over his long career, he knows how to make it work. The record features a fantastic cover version of “A Salty Dog” by Procol Harum and the epic “Lost in America”, which Langford originally wrote for an episode of the Chicago-based public radio show This American Life.

As with most of his recent efforts, Gold Brick sports cover art by Langford who, when he’s not being a rock star or a country music revivalist, has a career as a visual artist as well. Viva la renaissance, man!

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