Ancient & Modern

The Mekons

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Ancient & Modern Review

by Mark Deming

The Mekons have been a going concern since 1976, a distant and almost unfathomable era by rock & roll standards, and since they've always seemed to be purposefully out of step with the world around them, the notion that these former punk firebrands are imagining themselves as denizens of the early 20th century on their 26th album, Ancient & Modern, seems at once curious and perfectly reasonable. Ancient & Modern finds the Mekons moving back and forth between scrappy, electric rock & roll and acoustic-based performances that reflect sounds of the past, including eerie nostalgic reveries ("Warm Summer Sun"), Tin Pan Alley jazz ("Geeshie"), stately ballads ("I Fall Asleep"), world-weary folk ("Afar & Forlorn"), and lean, wiry blues ("Calling All Demons"), all alongside un-amplified variations of their usual approach. But as the Mekons look back into another age, their obsessions are the same as they've always been -- politics, class, society, rage, fear, resignation, and bemusement with a culture that seems to crumble before their eyes. And if the historical tone of some tracks suits a journey into the past, most of the time their message seems to have barely changed since "Never Been in A Riot." If there's a crucial difference in Ancient & Modern, it's a matter of craft; 2007's Natural found the Mekons stripping their music back to an elemental, acoustic core, and here they follow a similar path but with more ambitious and compelling results, as the slightly shambolic campfire songs give way to carefully constructed acoustic arrangements that are artful and evocative. For a band that's long made a virtue out of inspired amateurism, Ancient & Modern sounds like the group's most musically accomplished album to date in its own purposefully low-key manner. Tom Greenhalgh's always wobbly vocals are in better shape here than ever before, and Suzie Honeyman's fiddle and Rico Bell's accordion possess an elegance here that they've rarely been granted in the past, while Sally Timms and Jon Langford's vocals are, as usual, splendid. The Mekons have made their discontent more aestetically appealing on Ancient & Modern, but if their rage is more graceful, it's no less powerfully felt, and the intelligence and care that went into this album ultimately makes its dour message cut even deeper; it's the Mekons' most accomplished bit of record making in some time.

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