Jon Langford is a man with broad tastes in music, which is immediately obvious when one explores his body of work. The Mekons, his first band, have evolved from punk to roots rock to art-damaged country to electronics to traditional folk over the span of five decades, and Langford's many side projects have been every bit as eclectic. One of the few styles Langford hasn't tried in the past is Southern soul, but he's finally crossed that one off his list with his 2017 album, Four Lost Souls. For this project, Langford teamed up with three fellow Chicagoans -- vocalists Bethany Thomas and Tawny Newsome and guitarist John Szymanski -- and traveled to Alabama for four days of recording. The producer for the sessions was Norbert Putnam, a former member of the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and a session musician whose credits run from Linda Ronstadt and the Monkees to Willie Nelson and Elvis Presley. Putnam put together an impressive crew of Southern studio cats, including MSRS members David Hood and Randy McCormick, Nashville pedal steel wizard Pete Finney, and Will McFarlane, who formerly played in Bonnie Raitt's road band. While a certain amount of chaos is usually part of a Jon Langford album, thanks to these ace musicians Four Lost Souls is easily the most polished and in-the-pocket album he's released to date, even if it was recorded in less than a workweek. While the tone of this music is soulful, Langford's thematic aim is more specifically Southern, which means there are echoes of country in these arrangements as well as solid R&B grooves. Langford's songs reflect his fascination with the culture and legacy of the American South, for better and for worse, and if his Welsh-accented voice sometimes seems to run counter to the music, Bethany Thomas and Tawny Newsome are both marvelous, putting their own spin on this music while honoring the traditions of Muscle Shoals soul. (Tomi Lunsford's guest vocal on "Snake Behind Glass" is similarly impressive.) While Four Lost Souls is a creative departure for Jon Langford, his songs make it clear this is very much his work, and these tales of the joys and sorrows of life below the Mason-Dixon Line are as insightful and intelligent as one would expect. Few tunesmiths have as keen an eye for the American psyche as Langford, and he's put his observations to splendid use on Four Lost Souls.
Four Lost Souls Review
by Mark Deming