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Music Review: Jon Langford – Skull Orchard Revisited

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Early in the Mekons’ now long and storied career, the band moved from a post-punk brooding to the anarchic post-roots rock that it launched in 1986 with the classic Fear & Whiskey. This is the territory that Langford and his merry charges have travelled ever since, but the country it most often recalls is his adopted America (Langford has called Chicago home since the early ’90s). But in 1998, Langford released a solo album that has been called his most Welsh, and now with Skull Orchard Revisited: Art, Words, and Music, he returns not only to that solo effort but to his Welsh homeland, and expands the record with an even more entertaining book, illustrated with Langford’s paintings and with text by Langford and his brother David.

Langford took velvet Elvis colors pink and blue and married them with ashphalt and skyline for the cover of Fear and Whiskey. Such imagery, which lends a mysterious patina to well-worn icons, continues in his paintings, which have a texture like they were painted on old pub walls scratched with decades of graffiti where a man happened to lay down his visions of whales and Tom Jones (also a Welshman).

One of the centerpieces of Skull Orchard the album and the book is the filming of a 1956 film version of Moby Dick in Wales. On the album this comes in the form of the ballad “Youghal”; in the book, it’s represented by Langford’s first published piece of fiction, which riffs on whales and his homeland. But Langford’s Melvilllian muse is better honored with his excellent intro — something in his everyday tone just reads Welsh, and the casual use of impossible vowel combinations like “Cwmbrian” echo Melville’s strangely gorgeous language far better than the curiously restrained prose of Langford’s fish story.

Langford has generously remixed the original session tapes and enlisted the help of the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus, which makes many of the album’s songs that much more anthemic, but the approach runs against an aesthetic that would sooner add surface noise than slickness to modern sound and image. It’s a flawed package, but at a list price of $20 for a book and CD, it’s still an worthy addition to any Mekons library.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.