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Past perfect
The Mekons and the Sundowners

"Down in the basement, the ugly band plays/Tired of their music and wasting their breath." So sang the Mekons on "Ugly Band," from 1986’s Edge of the World (issued on CD in 1996 by the Touch and Go imprint Quarterstick), near the peak of the British punks’ fascination with American country music. (The album also includes covers of Don Gibson’s "Sweet Dreams" and Hank Williams’s "Alone & Forsaken.") It’s not a certainty that the song was inspired by the Sundowners — who are the subjects of a new archival release, Chicago Country Legends (Bloodshot) — but it’s a fair guess given that core Mekons Jon Langford and Sally Timms have both described stumbling into Chicago’s subterranean R.R. Ranch on a mid-’80s American tour to discover the locally famed trio playing there, as they did four nights a week from 1971 to 1989.

"Ugly"? Well, Langford’s cover painting of Curt Delaney, Bob Boyd, and Don Wallis in their 60s for Chicago Country Legends is hardly flattering (though in photos Boyd, especially, displays a certain charm). "Tired"? With the schedule they kept for all those years at the R.R., who could blame them? It’s not clear from compiler Dave Hoekstra’s generally excellent notes how these three Southerners first convened in Chicago, but by the early ’60s, they were backing touring artists on regional television and moving from bar to bar until settling at the R.R. (They later bought the club outright — that’s one way to keep a gig.)

On this collection, the Sundowners never sound tired, even on 1988’s Robbie Fulks–penned "Cigarette State." Largely drawn from 600 hours of live and studio recordings made between 1960 and 1971, Legends reveals a polished, casually virtuosic group at ease with one another and their chosen style: the drumless Western swing of the Sons of the Pioneers, lightly urbanized. Delaney’s bass and Boyd’s acoustic guitar are all about rock-solid rhythm; Wallis’s lead work adds color and flash. And they have distinctive voices: an emotional, pop-influenced tenor, a darker George Jones/Ernest Tubb croon, a weathered bluegrass wail.

But their tradition-bending repertoire is what sets them apart: straight folk ("Tom Dooley"), cowboy songs ("Cimarron"), jazz-based standards (Johnny Mercer’s "I Remember You"), and even the Beatles (a 1971 take of George Harrison’s "Something" swings a damn sight harder than Sinatra’s). One choice is pure hokum. "Little Pedro," by one "C. Null" (unknown even to the reliable All Music Guide to Country), recounts an abandoned child’s plea to a tourist: "If you see my mother where you go/Tell her Little Pedro’s lonely down in Mexico." The Sundowners dignify even this mawkish novelty. Imagine what they do with the classically constructed "Tears," by Everly Brothers hitmakers Felice and Boudleaux Bryant: "That’s when the tears break out on me/And I come down with the misery."

The Mekons’ own Punk Rock (Quarterstick/Touch & Go) is another sort of document of a working band. The disc grew out of their 2003 tour, which celebrated 25 years by revisiting songs recorded, by vastly different line-ups, in their first five (they come to the Middle East next Thursday). Some — "This Sporting Life," "Fight the Cuts" — are relatively familiar; the latter is guest-performed here by Chicago associates the Sadies disguised as the "Canadian Mekons tribute band" Eaglebauer. Others — "Teeth," "Lonely and Wet" — will be new to all but the oldest or most dedicated fans.

That said, this isn’t the ideal way to experience all these songs. As originally sung a cappella by the long-absent Mark White, 1981’s "The Building" is one of the most private-sounding recordings ever released. Here, Langford hams it up for a concert crowd, blunting its desperation. I was also surprised to hear Mekon-since-1984 Steve Goulding, who drummed on "Watching the Detectives" and the Cure’s "Let’s Go to Bed," play beneath his abilities in a homage to whichever Leeds art student first hacked away at "Never Been in a Riot," the Mekons’ Clash-satirizing debut.

These tracks revise their sources only slightly; the best rebuild them from the ground up. Sally Timms wasn’t on board to sing the pub-and-bedsit vignettes "Chopper Squad" and "Corporal Chalky" the first time around; here, both sound tailored to her restrained, British-folk-style approach. "Work All Week" is even better, replacing the original’s stiff arrangement with a reggae lilt, a dusting of thumb piano from Rico Bell, and a multi-Timms backing chorus. What haven’t changed are the lyrics, which connect courtship and commerce as unpretentiously as any great pop song: "I’ll work all week to buy your ring/Extra hours to get real gold/I’ll work all week/Not put off by signs saying sold." The Mekons may be conserving their songwriting energies on Punk Rock, but they’re not wasting their breath.

The Mekons perform next Thursday, March 11, at the Middle East, 472 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square; call (617) 492-BEAR.

Issue Date: March 5 - 11, 2004
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