Retreat from Memphis (1/4 Stick)
The Mekons

By Bob Bahr

I'll try to get through this without using too many superlatives -- other than to say that Retreat from Memphis is MORE than a great album. It's a great DOUBLE-album.

In these days, when CDs drag on longer and longer with less and less substance, Retreat from Memphis is consistently rewarding. The Mekons brand of poppy punk is one of the most satisfying addictions you'll ever acquire.

It seems that the English are more stylish at being a punk than their American counterparts. From the genre's beginning at Malcolm McLaren's clothing store, the guitar-driven, DIY screams and bellows of English punk bands have been underlined by a self-deprecation and humor. Somehow, amidst the relative silliness and loopy logic, a higher form of punkhood established itself. By contrast, the self-loathing and raw angst that constitutes some modern punk acts seems off-base in its maudlin despair. Frustration with the world is nothing new, but an anthem studying "the flame that killed John Wayne" is another matter altogether. That ditty is here on Retreat from Memphis, along with 16 other songs.

Yes, the Mekons have carried the punk banner nobly in their long illustrious career. Here, they deliver brilliance on a long (62 minute) CD or a double vinyl release.

Rather than introspectively finding fuel within themselves for the angry fire, the Mekons lash out (with bemused wonder) at the abstract forces that make prickly our existence. Thus, we get alienation ("Do I Know You?"), existentialism ("Insignificance"), bleak theology ("His Bad Dream"), and psychedelic constructions ("Spirals of Paranoia"). As carefully built as "Lucky Devil" is, the stomp of "Our Bad Dream" is, on the other hand, driven more by emotion than craftsmanship. We get ghostly female vocals on "Lucky Devil" and quivering spite on "Do I Know You." We get feedback and angry violin on "Eve Future."

But most of all, we get melodies. "Lucky Devil" is singable upon one listening -- both the musical line that holds up the verses and the catchy chorus. "Chemical Wedding" is another hook-driven song, with guitar and vocals in reasonable unison. "The Flame That Killed John Wayne" is an English pub sing-along for over-the-hill punks, without compromising the crash and burn of guitars. "His Bad Dream" is a primer on electric guitars, from feedback, to crying lines, to messy, loud chords. Said guitars are used mostly for texture, with the odd solo (like the nice one at the end of "Spinning Round in Flames") showing that the chaps have learned a few things from years of banging around unearthing hooks.

Lyrically, they can boozily declare that they "Never wanna work/Always wanna play/Pleasure, pleasure/Every single day." Bits of bile, banality and easy rhymes butt up against imagistic prose forced into service as song lyrics. Themes are loose and elusive enough to provide subtlety. Even though "Soldier" is probably about Desert Storm, I like to think it's about Memphis' famous ex-resident, Elvis Presley, when they sing, "Late last year the markets crashed/And show business got so boring/Gambling was a part of me/A substitute for thinking." But mostly, the words bust through the listener's consciousness only on occasion, not distracting unduly from the crunch and the crooked hooks.

The Mekons can sound hardcore, they can pop with the shiniest of 'em, they can explore, deplore, chant, scream, get lost in a jam or get tough on a tight song. Anyone who saw them at Butchertown Pub, the group thoroughly smashed on Red Stripe -- but executing a form of art nonetheless, will know that musical disorder can be exhilarating. The Mekons have it down to a science. Or is should I say, down to an art?