Anyone lucky enough to bear witness to the beautiful, booze-fueled carnage that is a Waco Brothers concert can attest to frontman Jon Langford’s charismatic and ever unpredictable stage presence. Aside from giving notoriously uninhibited live performances, “bad luck Jonathan” is also an accomplished visual artist (his work appearing everywhere from the Country Music Hall of Fame to the labels of your favorite Dogfishhead beers), a founding member of the 80’s folk-punk collective the Mekons, and a gifted songwriter who has made eleven solo albums beginning with 1998’s Skull Orchard.
Recorded amidst the confusion and uncertainty in the days immediately following the 2016 presidential election, Jon Langford’s Four Lost Souls is his latest offering via Bloodshot Records. The album finds the merry prankster and a trio of fellow Chicago-based yankees deep in the heart of Alabama where they were joined by original members of the Swampers from the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals and a slew of other locals. The resulting work, a thirteen track record that is equal parts folk, country, R+B, and rock n’ roll, serves as a celebration and timely reminder of true Southern culture and, more specifically, the artists and musical genres it has birthed, many of which laid the foundation for American pop music as we now know it.
Four Lost Souls shoves off with a high lonesome cry from the pedal steel guitar and the dirt road balladry of “Poor Valley Radio”. Filled with ominous images of fire and death, the song tells the story of two young lovers following the airwaves on their car radio in an attempt to get back home. Langford’s working class couplets bring to mind the blue-collar everyman poetry of Robert Burns or Woody Guthrie and, like many tracks from the album, the lyrics seem to be left intentionally ambiguous in terms of setting and date, adding to their timeless and ubiquitous quality.
This sentiment is reinforced as the record picks up tempo with “Natchez Trace” another traveling song and ode to the stretch of highway between Mississippi and Nashville. Once again Langford’s lyrics contain a sense historical context while remaining consciously open ended as reflected in the song’s chorus of “anywhere you want me, any time and space”. The standout track also encapsulates the all-American amalgamation of sound that pervades throughout the record, displaying a democratic balance of hot, southern rock style pedal steel guitar licks, acoustic piano pounding, and R&B inspired backup vocals all topped with the singer’s signature swashbuckling delivery.
Other highlights from the eclectic album include the down- home, country- gospel of “I Thought He Was Dead”, Waco-esque barroom cow- punk number “Half Way Home”, and a western style show tune laden with nods to the man in black and sung as a duet entitled “Snake Behind Glass”.
Photo by Nate Urbansky