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The Mekons Celebrate Restlessness And Exploration On 'Deserted'


This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: The Mekons are a British band. But to make "Deserted," their first new album in eight years, the group went to a California studio just outside Joshua Tree National Park. The band says the rugged landscape informed the highly diverse collection of songs they wrote for the album. Rock critic Ken Tucker has this review of "Deserted."


THE MEKONS: (Singing) Lying in this cot, andromeda above this cot. On the ground, creatures creep about. The dirt don't care.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The Mekons are first-generation punk rockers formed in 1977, who have moved through an array of styles and genres over the decades. They've played British-style folk music, American-style country and their own unique, bashed-out variation on rock 'n' roll. They've broken up and reassembled more than once. And nominal leader Jon Langford, at various points, was at least as much of a visual artist as anything else, painting many striking portraits of classic country stars. The band is back together with many of its key members intact, including Sally Timms, who sings the ghostly lead vocal on this track, "In The Desert."


THE MEKONS: (Singing) In the desert, artillery takes its time. Pounds and recoils, shell after shell. Sunk in the sand, a shattered statue lies. Nothing survives. In the desert, nothing survives.

TUCKER: Although they're a British band, The Mekons have made Chicago, the home of their record label, a base of operations at various points. But most of "Deserted" was written in the desert. Jon Langford says that the group had been writing songs in spare moments on the road during a concert tour, but the material didn't feel right. They heard about this studio outside of Joshua Tree National Park. When they arrived, they found the landscape, to quote Langford, "inspirational to old pirate punk rockers."


THE MEKONS: (Singing) Lawrence of California, get out of the van and disappear. Hello. Teeth flash yellow over your shoulder as the dusty walls move in. And nothing is near. Get out of the van and disappear. Every seed is a weapon here. And soon I'll be the king.

TUCKER: That's "Lawrence Of California," the band's technicolor movie - a big rock tune that equates the 1962 Peter O'Toole desert epic "Lawrence Of Arabia" with the harsh landscape the band found in Joshua Tree. The Mekons is an ongoing art project that's always reaching back to illustrate the present. Take, for example, their song "Weimar Vending Machine." It's a gleefully elusive yet beautiful composition about a country collapsing into chaotic hostility. It's a history song that sounds right up to the minute.


THE MEKONS: (Singing) Stranger in a strange land. Strange to have no better plan. Iggy pops up in Berlin at a Weimar vending machine. Press S-A-N-D for a sandwich. Out pops a prepacked bag of sand. Ten thousand grains in a kleine packet. He can hide it in his hand.

TUCKER: The Mekons look to history again on "Harar 1883." The title is a reference to the city of Harar, Ethiopia. In 1883, the French poet Arthur Rimbaud went there to escape from the European poetry world and gained some new life experiences while still in his mid-20s. The considerably older members of The Mekons tell the story with dramatic flair.


THE MEKONS: (Singing) I wrap my scarf around my head tight against the desert dread. Wind blown hard across the sand. Bullet marks that scar my hand. Back home, they think I've disappeared. Yes, it's true that I deserted that Dutch army in the east. I was not troubled in the least to give up writing poetry. I traded coffee in Abyssinia. I was the only European, Haile Selassie's father's friend.

TUCKER: "Deserted" is an album that, like the best of The Mekons' collections, is intentionally difficult to get a fix on. It leaps around in sound and style, frequently beginning in one genre and ending in another in the space of a single song. Ultimately, it coheres as a series of arguments for the value of restlessness, for ceaseless exploration - which is just what The Mekons have been doing for more than 40 years.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker reviewed the new album "Deserted" by The Mekons. On tomorrow's show, actor Christopher Meloni. You may recognize him from his 12 seasons as a detective on "Law And Order: SVU" or his turn as a sociopathic inmate in the prison drama "Oz." He stars as an ex-cop turned hitman who collaborates with an imaginary unicorn played by Patton Oswalt in the series "Happy!" on the SyFy channel. Hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.