When a scaled-down version of the Mekons toured Scotland last year, they Shanghaied pal Robbie Fulks to fill in for the missing Tom Greenhalgh. No more perfect companion could have been stuffed into the hold, as Fulks shares the band’s cockeyed view of life and is himself a one-man distillation of what the Meeks have tried to do since about 1985 — fuse roots rock and country with a punk-rock ethos and a madcap sense of humor.
Along the way, the Mini Mekons, as they were calling themselves, took to the island of Jura, where sheep and casks of whiskey outnumbered humans, to record a (mostly) acoustic album, their 319th by my count. It is, as might be expected, a really wonderful collaboration.
Spiritual kin to 2007’s Natural, which if we recall correctly, also saw the Mekons gather the gang from their hideouts in Chicago and various dives to record a (mostly) acoustic album in the British countryside, Jura features the familiar voices of Jon Langford and Sally Timms, with Rico Bell and Fulks each taking turns before the mikes. With the exception of “Space In Your Face” from 2011’s Ancient And Modern, this is the best music the Meeks have released since 2002’s OOOH (out of our heads) – as fun a collection of sea chanties and folk charmers as is imaginable in the current sorry epoch.
The highlight for us on Jura is Robbie Fulks singing Tom Greenhalgh’s parts on the revived “Beaten And Broken,” a song first played by the Mekons during their mid-’80s Fear And Whiskey period, when they single-handedly created alt-country, a genre we take for granted today as having always existed.
Oh sure, maybe it started earlier with, say, The Basement Tapes. Or Hank Williams. Or the house band in the Gem Saloon in Deadwood. But just as the Mekons’ first album, The Quality of Mercy Is Strnen, had a jacket showing a monkey just miss being able to type a single line of Shakespeare, the band has always toyed with the concept of what would happen if 100 untrained Brits picked up electric guitars (to quote from the first piece we ever wrote about them, in 1981 in the Soho News.). When the band solidified in 1986 with the lineup more and somewhat less represented here, a buncha leftists from Leeds had paradoxically become the keepers of a peculiar flame — musical remnants of both American and British traditionalism. And on the island of Jura, with acoustic instruments, they still managed to bash around as joyously, weirdly, and beautifully as they did on their legendary live 1987 ROIR cassette Mekons…New York.
Three decades hence and then some, we now know the Mekons have become as formidable and long-lasting a force as their contemporaries The Fleshtones, and on Jura, they are purveyors of some of the most beautiful modern folks songs to be found on record this year.