Jon Langford & Skull Orchard / Jon Langford

Here Be Monsters

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Since his earliest days in the Mekons, there's always been a certain purposeful sloppiness in Jon Langford's music, as the rough textures and blunt corners reflected the hard lives and mean circumstances of the people he most often wrote about. But as one of the busiest music men in Chicago, a city full of prolific musicians, Langford has had to face the hard truth that he and his colleagues have gotten better with the passage of time, and his 2014 album with his band Skull Orchard is the point where he and his bandmates reveal that yes, they're actually a great band that not only has great ideas, but can execute them very well indeed. Here Be Monsters is, like many of his albums before it, a snapshot of the world at the time it was made, and once again, Langford and his crew have offered us a handful of well-rendered sketches of young men waging war like it's a video game, older men making a fortune from life and death conflicts, regular folks struggling to get by as mere survival becomes a greater burden, and the despair or casual hopelessness that sinks so many. The messages on Here Be Monsters are painful and timely, but the music is more eclectic and better sculpted than the ragged whiskey-fueled rants of the Mekons or the cranked-up honky tonking of the Waco Brothers; this is smart, dynamic indie rock, mature but passionate and unpretentious, with Langford and his partners bringing a tough but artful sound to these addresses on the state of the union in 2014. He's also brought together an especially good band for this edition of Skull Orchard, particularly Jim Elkington on guitar and keys, Jean Cook on violin, and Tawny Newsome on vocals. Langford's view of the world may not be optimistic, but Here Be Monsters never strives to be despairing, simply honest, and the music is rich and pleasurable while carrying messages more people need to hear. Langford may have lost a tiny bit of ragged glory, but he's gained plenty along the way that makes this album a must, whether they're longtime fans or not.

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