The Curmudgeon: Musical Tourists and Musical Travelers

The Mekons, Beirut and Alejandro Escovedo learn from the land

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The Curmudgeon: Musical Tourists and Musical Travelers

There is a crucial difference between tourists and travelers. Tourists are on vacation; they’re vacating their usual roles in life to get some rest and relaxation. They want to be amused by their new surroundings, but they don’t want to get too involved. And there’s nothing wrong with that; we all need some R&R from time to time.

Travelers, by contrast, are not leaving work behind; they’re bringing it with them to a new location. They’re traveling, in fact, in hopes that new circumstances will stimulate new and better production. They need to be involved with their new surroundings.

This is as true of musicians as of anyone else. Musical tourists may be more likely to enjoy their trip, but musical travelers are more likely to accomplish something of value. The former may expect to snap up inspiration from an exotic locale like cheap souvenirs, but if they think that will substitute for their own lack of motivation and work ethic, they’re almost always disappointed. Travelers who bring their own ideas and discipline with them are more likely to create a give-and-take dialogue with their destination and create something worthwhile.

When producer George Martin, for example, built AIR Studios on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, it was designed as a getaway for musical tourists, an isolated refuge for making music near a sunny beach with palm trees. And while the studio did yield a handful of admirable albums (the Police’s Synchronicity, Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms), no one would argue that the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels, Elton John’s Too Low for Zero, Eric Clapton’s Behind the Sun or Earth, Wind & Fire’s Faces represented those artists’ best work. There was an indolent detachment in the tracks that reflected a tourist’s mentality.

The Mekons have a better idea. The band was started in 1976 by some art students at the University of Leeds in England who were so taken by the Clash’s early singles that they decided to pick up some instruments, quickly learn them and record some punk singles of their own. The first, “Never Been in a Riot,” which declared, “I’m always in the toilet, missing out on the noise,” was a jocular riposte to the Clash’s “White Riot.”

The Mekons’ curiosity was too restless to stay in a punk straitjacket for long, however, and soon they were incorporating British folk ballads, American country, Jamaican reggae, Turkish folk dances and much more. As their interests expanded, so did their instrumentation. To the guitar, bass and drums of punk rock they added accordion, fiddle and saz. The rude push was still there, but it splintered at the edges into acoustic echoes of a long past.

In recent years, the group has scattered across two hemispheres, so getting together necessarily involves some travel. Rather than journeying to someone’s home base, the band has hit on the strategy of assembling on turf that doesn’t belong to anyone. There they write, arrange and record the songs for an album in a few short weeks.

For 2015’s album Jura, for example, they gathered on the Scottish island of Jura with their pal Robbie Fulks. For 2016’s Existentialism, it was the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn. And for this year’s Deserted, they met up at the Joshua Tree National Park in California. The result has been some of the finest music of the ensemble’s existence—now in its fifth decade.

The songs aren’t about Joshua Tree exactly, but they are obviously inspired by the desert, even if the dunes seem to be in Abyssinia (“Harar 1883”), the Egypt of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias (“In the Desert”) or the imaginary borderlands between Saudi Arabia and Joshua Tree (“Lawrence of California”). For a band with multiple songwriters and singers, the new landscape just outside the window provided the connecting thread to tie their various perspectives together.

The Mekons capture the essence of those arid expanses where vegetation and humidity are so scarce that everything stands out more starkly—not only the red rocks and blue sky but also hope and despair, affection and bitterness. It’s harder to evade difficult choices in such an environment, and the band’s unflinching storytelling—rooted in the sweet and grinding instruments as much as in the singing—makes it harder still. A stranger with a gun bent on vengeance seems ready to force the issue on “Mirage.” He appears as “a skinny fella” on the horizon, moving implacably toward the singer, who cowers in his tent while “the dust storms rage.”

If the situation on the ground seems dire, the album seems to say, just look up. Due to the lack of moisture and light pollution, the sky above the desert seems so much closer than the heavens over wetter, more populated areas. Over the sci-fi beeping sounds of high-pitched guitars of “The Galaxy Explodes,” Sally Timms and Jon Langford warn that this “pleasing cobalt dome” can be shattered at any minute by colliding asteroids.

And yet there are small consolations. On “After the Rain,” Timms reassures us that however barren the desert might seem right now, no matter how awful the current government, there are “armor-plated seeds and spores” lurking beneath the surface. “Come back later,” she sings. “you should see us after the rain.” Over the lazy, hillbilly two-step of “Andromeda,” Tom Greenhalgh exults in the chance to lie back in his cot outside his tent and watch the stars of “Andromeda floating away like a departing dream.”

In the same vein, Greenhalgh sings “How Many Stars?” one of the loveliest numbers the Mekons have ever recorded. Quoting such ancient folk songs as “Barbara Allen,” “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” and “Jack Orion,” the heartbroken narrator seeks solace in the sky. His beloved may be gone, but the multitude of stars are still there to keep him company. In these last two songs, Susie Honeyman’s fiddle provides the balm to Greenhalgh’s anguish.

The Mekons make little reference to the particulars of Joshua Tree; there are no allusions, for example, to Gram Parsons who worked and died there. But the British octet came to the place for the same reason Parsons did, not as tourists expecting to be amused, not as vampires expecting to feed off someone else’s culture, but as travelers hoping the desert might prove a useful lens for examining their own lives. And so it proved.

As it also proved on another recent album. Beirut’s Gallipoli is named not after the Turkish peninsula where the famous World War I battle was fought, but after a medieval fortress town on the heel of Italy’s boot. The band arrived there by a circuitous journey that began in New York, led to Germany and climaxed in southern Italy. Zach Condon, Beirut’s primary singer and songwriter, kept moving not as a tourist in search of diversion but as a traveler in search of the right working conditions.

The last Beirut album had been 2015’s No No No, and Condon was spurred into action again by the reunion with an old Farfisa electric organ that had inspired the writing for the band’s first two albums in 2006 and 2007. The instrument, whose accordion-like bleating inspired so much Tex-Mex-rock in the 1960s, was a good starting point for Condon. After all, he plays a bleating trumpet on most of his songs, a beguiling mix of American indie-rock and European folk and cabaret music.

After early sessions in Manhattan, Condon grew disenchanted with the city’s gentrification and traveled to Germany, finally settling in its capital. But for the bulk of the recording, Condon, his bandmates Paul Collins and Nick Petree, and co-producer Gabe Wax repaired to Puglia, near Gallipoli, Italy. It made sense, for Condon’s musical vision was inspired as much by the street bands in black-and-white Italian films of the ’50s and ’60s as by the Talking Heads.

Like the Mekons, Beirut used its new surroundings not so much as subject matter as a filter through which to consider their own issues. Condon’s lyrics are minimalist and cryptic, offering only oblique hints as to what’s on his mind. The album’s title track, for example, offers one detail from the Ionian Sea, “Southern winds scattered clouds from the cove,” but seems to compare the seaside fortress to music: both can be efforts to spare the makers from the world’s sorrows, blows and forgetfulness.

Another song, “Varieties of Exile,” might have been a better title for the album. For these songs capture the limbo of living somewhere where you don’t have any history. You feel like Babar the African elephant in a European court, suggests the song “I Giardini.” When you get news of a “Landslide” back home, you feel strangely detached. “We Never Lived Here,” another song says, “never saw what they saw.”

The traveler’s sense of living somewhere but not really living there is best captured by the layers upon layers of multi-tracked music. The trumpet, trombone, organ, piano, ukulele, moog, bass and percussion line up approximately but not exactly, and its that slight misalignment that gives Condon’s captivating melodies their dramatic tension. “I wanted every creak and groan of the instruments,” Condon writes in his album notes, “ever detuned note, every amp buzz and technical malfunction to be left in the cracks of the songs.”

Another terrific recent album also resulted from travel to Italy. Alejandro Escovedo’s The Crossing was not only recorded in Villafranca, Italy, with the Italian instrumental-rock band Don Antonio, but it was also co-written by Escovedo and Don Antonio’s Antonio Gramentieri. Italy, of course, is now caught in its own immigration crisis, and Escovedo, the son of illegal immigrants to America, was able to get a new perspective on these issues by viewing it through a European as well North American window.

Escovedo and Gramentieri built their concept album around two imaginary characters: Diego, an illegal from Saltillo, Mexico (Pedro Escovedo’s hometown) and Salvo, an arrival from Calabria, Italy, on an expiring visa. Working as dishwashers at Mario’s Italian Restaurant in a 1987 Galveston, Texas, they’re excited to meet because they haven’t come here looking for green lawns and shopping malls; they’ve come for punk-rock, gangster movies and beat poetry.

They buy a third-hand, 1964 silver Impala and set off on a wild adventure across the Southwest in search of a different American dream, each stop described by a new song. Some of the songs are high-octane, full-throttle garage-rockers, echoing the punk-rock cassettes they play on a boombox. Some are folkloric ballads that pine for the loved ones left behind in northern Mexico and southern Italy.

It was one of the best albums of last autumn, and it couldn’t have happened if Escovedo hadn’t hired Don Antonio as his backing band for a string of shows in Europe. It couldn’t have happened if Escovedo had gone to Italy as a tourist, seeing the sites, soaking up the sun and borrowing the culture. It only happened because he went as a traveler, eager to work, ready to respond to the culture he found with the culture he had, willing to use a foreign locale to cast a new light on his own home.