With Electric Waco Chair, the bloodshot, burly bunch from punk country has muscled its manly rage to a mature sound. And the sound is great. Chair is the most consistent of the band's five full-length releases, proving that edgy aggressiveness can be even more effective when it's hardly sloppy at all, and that a grace note or several, as in Jon Rauhouse's pretty Hawaiian guitar fills or Jon Langford's fledgling leitmotifs on -- gasp! -- classical guitar, can provide the kind of contrast that underscores the threat of the rest.
The point of view in the songs is mature as well, that of a hard-tempered steely eye, innocence gone, and staring hard at a death sentence. But despite the name, and the oblique credit to the Illinois Artists Against the Death Penalty, or even the band's regular appearances at rallies against what British-born Langford regards as the "barbaric" American custom of capital punishment, there's just one song that might be related to that topic. Yet "Cornered" could as easily be an allegory for the death sentence faced daily by the spirits of us been-there working stiffs, even if it's occasionally self-imposed.
The Wacos are frequently and fairly accurately characterized as "Clash meets Cash." On Chair, though, it sounds more like Clash meets Stones. Guitars chug and whine, voices howl and scrape, and the only remnant of the band's self-styled country tradition is a cover of Paul Kennerly's "When I Get My Rewards," a simple classic in the "they say I'm not good enough for you but someday . . ." genre.
Every song will shake your booty or your paradigm, but the most memorable choruses belong to Dean Schlabowski in the claustrophobic "Where in the World (are you)" and in "Circle Tour," which drives home the circular frustration of a traveling salesman: "The road you set out on/Is the road you left behind." Rauhouse's Hawaiian guitar and Kelly Hogan's high echo paint the road with sunlight, but it's still hell.
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The really indelible imagery, though, is all Langford's, particularly in the opening track, in which he invites us all to hang around "until the earth melts like a chocolate bar." Bitterly he suggests that we just stuff him like Roy Rogers' horse Trigger or cast him out with the garbage like other remnants of culture and tradition we toss aside like so much refuse. In "Mighty Fall," though, he suggests that sometimes our plight may result from failing to take charge of our own destiny, a theme also visited in Schlabowski's "Make It Happen," with its chorus of "Scratch my back/Wash my hands/Make things happen."
Langford launched this motley ensemble from what were, in the mid-'90s, newfound friends in his adopted hometown of Chicago. Fellow Brit, Mekon and Chicagoan Steve Goulding, who has also held forth with the likes of Graham Parker, Gang of Four and Poi Dog Pondering, anchors the band like the battleship it is. Tracy Dear, the son of a Dubliner, sings and plays what can only be called rhythm mandolin. Jesus Jones' frenetic sexpot bassist Alan Doughty plays in spectacular colors, and journeyman guitarist-about-town Mark Durante invented punk pedal steel, but has since expanded his range. Rounding out the band is rocker-at-large Schlabowski, whose songwriting and guitar playing gleam in this setting, and whose only other recorded work, with his ersatz punk band Wreck (produced by Langford), is probably worth twice what you pay for it should you be lucky enough to score one.
Still a leader of the Mekons, Langford's also played a key role throughout the Bloodshot label's history, and in the careers of scores of musicians who've benefited from his propensity to start a project whenever somebody's talent seems to give him good reason. He's also lent the heft of his prodigious music and art output to a wide range of political and social causes besides the fight against capital punishment, beginning with the Mekons' support of striking dock workers in the U.K. in the '80s. Like a robust and noisy gadfly, he has for years hectored Nashville's Music Row for neglecting its traditions, both in song (Waco Brothers' "Death of Country Music" from 1997's Cowboy in Flames) and more recently in touring exhibits of his paintings of country music icons and of tombstones carved with legends limning their fall.
To follow Jon Langford's life and career is to gain insight into the kind of energy that must have driven creative masters like Michelangelo and Thomas Jefferson. That same spirit and intensity drives Electric Waco Chair. But instead of an ornate chapel ceiling or a historical declaration, we get a piece of rugged, honky-tonk vinyl.