Alt-country's Waco Brothers have been making amazing records for so long, it's easy to take them for granted.
Fronted by living legend Jon Langford -- whose punk-era luminaries the Mekons are still up and running, God bless 'em -- the band is almost too good to be true. The Chicago-based outfit provides such a rich and smart-alecky amalgam of down-home cowpunk and biting lyrical wit that it's nearly impossible to believe it exists.
But exist it does, and "Freedom and Weep," the band's cleverly titled seventh CD, is easily its best outing yet.
Following on the heels of Langford's impressive 2004 solo turn, "All the Fame of Lofty Deeds," the Wacos' new one picks up where their ringleader left off: In the midst of contemplating a U.S. of A. cut loose from its wide-eyed moorings and bound up in the kind of mind-numbing paranoia and/or ennui that apparently only hard drinking, "Girls Gone Wild" and, maybe, Paris Hilton can relieve.
"Pass me the bottle, hand me my heart," offers Dean Schlabowske as his fellow Wacos serve up a twang-laden backyard barbecue on the album's fiery set opener, "Nothing at All." "I'm wasted and stunted, but I talk like a star." In a perfect world, that lyric, dripping with sarcasm, would be a call -- if not to arms then at least to stop Tivoing "The Simple Life" and to start paying attention to real life.
The Wacos, alas, aren't too hopeful on that front.
To wit: The swaggering "Drinkin' & Cheatin' & Death" -- a track that sounds like something the members of Kiss might cook up if they operated a Branson nightspot -- opens during "last call before the fall" at a country bar. And it closes, appropriately enough, with a sputtering lament, offered from the point of view of a performer whose corporate sponsors have come to drag him off the stage, that "the only D-I-V-O-R-C-E is from reality, from history."
Elsewhere, on the barnstorming "Chosen One," Langford zings the powers that be by commingling the parable of the loaves and fishes with an ad hominem attack on "Dumb Boy the Patriot," a character who finds "mayhem so seductive" and that "destruction is instructive."
Subtle? Not hardly. But that's never been the Wacos' calling card. Instead, on pithy, bitter ditties like "Secrets" -- a fast-paced country two-stepper that could inspire a mosh pit at a hootenanny -- and the crunchy "On the Sly," the band combines torn-from-the-op-ed-pages words with music that fans of higher-profile alt-country acts would no doubt swoon for. And that goes double for "It's Amazing," a track that taps into the country mystique that Lucinda Williams shot for (and missed) on 2003's tepid "World Without Tears."
But cherry-picking keepers from "Freedom and Weep" is light work. Better to slightly misquote Langford's contemporaries in the Clash and say that, taken together, the songs assembled on this fine and substantial platter resonate like public service announcements -- with pedal steel guitar.