Out There

The other side of the pond
The Return of Rico Bell
Rico Bell
Bloodshot

The Edge of the World
Mekons
Quarterstick

Even if you didn't know Rico Bell from Adam, you'd be inclined to give his Return a lot of points based on its heartfelt vibe alone. Bell--founding member of perhaps the coolest punk band ever, Leeds, England's Mekons--has just the kind of hipster lineage that could allow him to skate, but he refuses that easy out.

Instead, he really tries, again working with longtime partner and former Mekon Jon Langford. They've done their homework, building a sound with a thoroughness that only comes out of love: sighing steel, Southwestern accordion, and muscular, twangy guitar. It doesn't always work, but who exactly could tackle classics by Dan Penn ("Dark End of the Street"), Merle Haggard ("Lonesome Fugitive"), and James Taylor ("Bartender's Blues") and come out with a 1.0 average? As it is, Bell distills the best of rock's vocal personas; a little bit of Warren Zevon here, some Dylanesque aspirations there, Springsteen's common-man heroism along with some peripheral glimpses of Ray Davies. Bell can make some missteps, but by the album's end, you don't think him presumptuous for trying.

In fact, after listening to the Mekon's reissued Edge, you might just be impressed with the persistence of his vision. First released in 1986, on the follow-up to the classic Fear and Whiskey the band was 9 years old, but Bell was just starting to contribute: His first vocal, on the chestnut Sweet Dreams, is here, done as a rave-up--one suspects because it was the only way the band could do it. Everything on Return is foretold on Edge, although sometimes those prophesies are in embryonic form: "King Arthur" combines accordion and a lament about the transitory nature of modern love with the theatrical huff of the Boss.

"No one ever says goodbye these days," the Mekons lament on that song. "We're all too busy running scared." It is surprising how little the themes of loneliness and separation change, country or not. The Mekons weren't just Clover-come-latelies, though:They had no problem inserting ugly shards of feedback into pretty ballads or running through a song in less than a minute. In a lot of ways they prefigure cow punk, the True Believers, and eventually the Old 97's. Although separated by a decade, Edge and Return are a pair, a coupling well worth checking out.

--Matt Weitz

 
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