A reintroduction to one of rock’s biggest bands
Tribute albums are one of the best ways for popular musicians to honor the artists who inspired them — and also introduce their fans to a new style. For fans of the revolutionary British collective known as the Mekons, a long-running post-punk and alt-rock group, Will Oldham of Bonnie “Prince” Billie, Angel Olsen and other artists are here to re-introduce their work to new audiences.
A supergroup called Chivalrous Amoekons featuring Oldham Billy, Olsen, Emmett Kelly of the Cairo Gang, Ben Boye, Van Campbell, and Danny Kiely earlier this year announced their Mekons tribute album, wryly called Fanatic Voyage. Proceeds of the album, put out on Drag City, will benefit The Roots of Music, a New Orleans organization dedicated to music education, academic support and mentoring.
The Mekons kicked off back in the 1970s as the project of Leeds art students, and they delivered a British punk attitude with a little more groove and melodicism than some of their counterparts of their day. They continued to polish their post-punk sound in the 1980s with Fear and Whiskey, colored by introspection, description and darkness, with parallels to the likes of the Talking Heads or the B-52s but a sound more natural and nuanced and their own. The Mekons’ have released around 20 albums released in fits and starts into the 21st century, with a folksier sound that kicked in during the 2000s.
Modern fans might know the Mekons if their tastes have extended into sociopolitical bands, or if they’ve dived deep into rock docs of long-running bands. For the uninitiated, one listen through “Fanatic Voyage” will introduce them to a band who have achieved cult-like status and a big, sprawling discography and story to match.
The new compilation, in a revealing introductory fashion, chooses Mekons tracks scattered across decades. The album kicks off with the “The Curse,” originally from 1991’s The Curse of the Mekons with a dirty and dusty folk-rock groove.
“Love Letter” from 1993’s I Love Mekons features Olsen on lead vocals, her deep rumble of an alto telling the weird tale against an almost reggae-tinged backbeat. Listeners here are introduced into the busy, full sound that highlights much of the album.
The album’s halfway point, “Thee Olde Trip To Jerusalem” brings together call-and-response vocals with ragged and raw guitars. “I Am Crazy” from 1989’s The Mekons Rock’n’Roll has more of a traditional pop song format and style, but it retains a macabre whimsy, along with excellent harmonies and some airy, interesting solo sounds.
“Fantastic Voyage,” the song that inspired the punny album title, is peak poignancy, when the group sings together “This is meant to be a pain killer/but it’s so good it hurts” followed by a focused, jammy, guitar-driven outro. “One x One” from 2002’s OOOH! does justice to the renegade, punk-influenced ties of the Mekons, continuing themes of sadness and loss with stellar vocals and riffs from Olsen once again.
Chivalrous Amoekons picked two songs off of what is arguably the Mekons best-known record: 1985’s Fear and Whiskey. “Last Dance” and “Chivalry,” which closes the album on an upbeat note. It’s a true group effort, in keeping with the Mekons’ own recordings, infused with a passionate, rock and roll spirit.
For longtime fans of the Mekons, Fanatic Voyage is a great way to rehear old favorites that have been injected with new life and energy from reverent musicians. For fans of Oldham and Olsen, or any listener with an appetite for strong songs that stand the test of time, it’s chance to peek inside the mind of the artist as they play with and ponder the music that matters most to them.