Recording information: Isle of Jura, Scotland (08/2014); Sound of Jura, Scotland (08/2014).
If you were going to send a band to a tiny island off the Scottish coast to sample the product of the local distillery and write a batch of songs, the Mekons would be a far better choice than most, given their fondness for drink and their wise if cynical perspective on U.K. history. And if you were going to give them an American sidekick for their busman's holiday, you could hardly do better than Robbie Fulks, the brilliant and witty American singer/songwriter who nearly matches the Mekons for cynicism and love of alcohol. In 2014, someone had the inspiration (or folly) to make this notion a reality, and Jura is an album featuring a handful of songs the Mini-Mekons (the designation presumably refers to the absence of longtime Mekons members Tom Greenhalgh and Steve Goulding) and Fulks composed and recorded while on the Scottish island that gave the LP its name. Recorded almost entirely with acoustic instruments, Jura finds the condensed Mekons dipping deeper into the traditional folk influences that informed 2007's Natural and 2011's Ancient and Modern. The presence of the ocean also makes itself known, as several of the tunes take the form of damaged sea shanties, such as "Land Ahoy!," "Shine on Silver Seas," and "An Incident off St. Kitt's." While Jura evokes the sounds and themes of traditional British folk, at the same time it deals with the Mekons' classic themes of class, inequality, and the politics of the personal, even if the political elements often play more as subtext than as the main themes of the songs. The album also finds Jon Langford, Sally Timms, and Rico Bell in splendid voice, especially given the informal nature of the sessions. And while the Mini-Mekons get top billing for a good reason, Fulks makes the most of his contributions, sounding suitably defiant on "Refill" and "I Say, Hang Him," and bloodied but unbowed on "Beaten and Broken," giving his contributions the broad theatrical tone they need. Jura feels more like a playful experiment than a major statement, but the talent and vision of these artists makes this a surprisingly powerful and impressive work, and is a testament to the fact both the Mekons and Robbie Fulks need to record more often. When they do, the results are never ordinary, and neither disappoints. ~ Mark Deming
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