The Waco Brothers: A Midwest Mess...

The Waco Brothers: A Midwest Mess...

Life’s full of an endless series of questions – why can something work for one person, but not another. That’s just the most immediate in my mind, but there’re a litany of others. One of those daunting questions, though, goes something like, ‘How do you form a new(ish) band, play country music and not sound like garbage?”

Jon Langford asked that question at some point during the nineties. While living in Chicago, the Mekons’ front-man further developed his love of country music the point that it warranted forming a new ensemble. And while the Mekons moved from trebly, nervous punk stuff towards a nu-country sound, it never completely moved from one genre to the other. Pretty close, though.

Initially, Langford assembled the first line-up of the Waco Brothers to back him at local gigs where he’d be able to truck in Americana. Issuing its first long player in 1995 while the rest of the country was moving towards the death pangs of its infatuation with Seattle, the Waco Brothers were able to get some good notices for its Bloodshot Records release entitled To the Last Dead Cowboy. Of course, with Langford being a Brit expatriate, there’s a weird cultural thing going on here. Why the singer and songwriter wound up in the Midwest is curious in the first place, but that compounded with his penchant for country is just short of dumbfounding.

Whatever the reason for all of those things, the group’s second album, released in 1997 and called Cowboy in Flames, is generally considered its best as well as a landmark in the alt-country movement that was getting off the ground at about the same time.

What’s able to differentiate this Langford led ensemble from the pop-country stuff flooding airwaves and getting played a bars no one should be a regular at is the Waco Brothers’ inclusion of pedal steel – amongst a few other things, of course. But on “Dollar Dress” the instrument gets its high and lonesome feature. All slowly paced and mellow, the song’s a weird lament even as it raises up a dancer in a cheap skirt. The entire ensemble isn’t engaged – there’s no drum set to speak of, although a bit of percussion crops up. Given over to strummed guitar and that lap steel, the musical component of the song sounds as traditional as anything from your drunken uncle’s record collection. That being said, Langford still isn’t the greatest singer on the face of the earth. But we should all have known that from his recordings with the Mekons.

In that punkier ensemble, though, the sharply disjointed guitar chords serve to mitigate any vocal shortcomings. It all fits into place. The Waco Brothers don’t afford the singer the same cover to hide behind. Of course, seeing as the band’s generally well thought of, Langford’s almost on the mark singing might not matter. Regardless of that, the Bo Diddley appropriation on “Out in the Light” is pretty abysmal and should remind listeners why this is such a dangerous genre to be trudging through.