Fear and Whiskey
(Quarterstick Records)

In 1977, when Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh formed the Mekons in Leeds, England, the city was fraught with race riots. The Mekons' involvement with Rock Against Racism and its Marxist contrarian politics felt very much like a product of the times in general, and punk in particular, but this ragtag band of art-school cultural pirates outlasted the political and artistic movements that spawned it. Despite a turnstile-like series of lineup changes and genre-hopping, the band has hung onto its anarchic musical spirit, and has never ceased to burn brightly at both ends. This week, Chicago's Quarterstick Records is reissuing the Mekons' seminal 1985 album, Fear and Whiskey. The record found the Mekons turning into an incendiary country band that drew heavily on the roots of American hard country and even harder drinking. The sound is rollicking and vibrant, with the energy sometimes outstripping the musicianship. The hopelessness of the band's political ideals and working-class sympathies is embedded in the attitudes of the songs. Under the bad weather and even worse faith of the Thatcher-Reagan years, the Mekons' cynicism reads as humanity, and its exhaustion reads as hope. NATE LIPPENS

On the Boards

(Anomalous Records)

Amid the perpetual flood of experimental records by cleverly christened DJs and other obscurely monikered musicians, it's heartening to see a pioneer get his due. A stalwart of Seattle's avant music scene, Stuart Dempster is best known for his entrancing and playful approach to the trombone and didjeridoo. Mysteriously, despite a crucial presence at the Big Bang of Minimalism (Terry Riley's In C) and the cult status of his seminal ambient LP In the Great Abbey of Clement VI, Dempster remains underrepresented on CD. On the Boards captures Dempster live and in sumptuous form, from the whirling didjeridoo tones and jackal-throated susurrations of "Didjeridervish" to the vaporous chanting and calming rumble of a brass didjeridoo in "JDBBBDJ." Dempster also has a knack for finding humor in the sacred; his panoramically placed trombone blats and borborygmus in "Don't Worry It Will Come" make for some mirthful (albeit faux) musique concrète. Inhabiting the alluring twilight between the aggressive avant musician and tranquillity-seeking New Ager, the gently exploratory On the Boards is mellow in the best sense of the word. CHRISTOPHER DeLAURENTI

Our Constant Concern

(Polyvinyl Records)

So much music writing is bullshit because music is such a personal medium. Bands mean different things to different people and, as a consequence, all your average hack journalist can do is scribble out some words of praise and/or derision, and hope it means something to someone. Hence this here review, which is definitely soaked in praise for the new Mates of State record, one of the best records I've heard in a long, long while. Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner, who make up MoS (and are very much in love in real life), have fashioned, with Our Constant Concern, one giant PDA available at finer music outlets everywhere. A two-piece pretending to be a four-piece, their sound lodges itself squarely in your chest from the first track to the last, making even the most jaded critic (i.e., me) smile warmly, cheerily... er, unjadedly. So pick it up, for it's really quite brilliant. Or don't. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Eban & Charley Original Soundtrack
(Merge Records)

Written and directed by James Bolton, Eban & Charley is a homosexual, digital-video twist on intergenerational romance that's been kicking around gay film fests for the past couple years. So far the film (slated for a Spring 2002 release) has drawn deeply iffy reviews, with more than one critic citing Stephin Merritt's score as a glittering jewel amid James Bolton's pretentious, undernourished dross. Here's hoping Merritt's ragtag collection of piano tinkles, sound-effect loops, and slight pop songs accomplish more on film than they do on disc. Fortunately, floating in the unremarkable ambience are songs to temporarily appease those waiting for Merritt's next full-blown release. Both "Maria Maria Maria" and "This Little Ukulele" win points by displaying Merritt's world-renowned knack for classically catchy melodies and incisive, idiosyncratic lyrics, while "Water Torture" is a dark-blooded tongue-twister that could only have come from the author of Hyacinths & Thistles. Still, these are songs Merritt could've written in his sleep, and Eban & Charley is a record perhaps best listened to in yours. DAVID SCHMADER

A Feather in the Engine

(Merge Records)

For brand-new 2002, David Kilgour's A Feather in the Engine satisfies that annual January search for an album boasting both freshness and introspection. Kilgour's been around since the '70s, when he and his brother Hamish formed the Clean--one of New Zealand's most popular and acclaimed bands, which spawned not only the Great Unwashed, the Chills, and Bailter Space, but also the well-respected Flying Nun record label. This is Kilgour's fourth solo effort (the Clean reformed last year to record the wonderful Getaway), and what an effervescent, jangling, timeless triumph it is. Strings and keyboard horns dress beautifully simple melodies in twinkling pop illumination, and Kilgour's twangy guitar strum and sweetly youthful voice lend an urgency to a passel of songs that would find fans of artists as disparate as Jason Pierce, Bob Dylan, and Robin Zander crowing in unified praise. KATHLEEN WILSON