As a founding member of Mekons, Welsh-born Jon Langford helped define the genre-blending art-school side of Britain's 1970s punk explosion, and later helped create the alt-country movement via Mekons' Fear And Whiskey and his subsequent Waco Brothers and solo work. After his 1992 move to Chicago, Langford has followed his muse in ever-more-expansive directions, including a haunting series of paintings of country-music icons, the terrific autobiographical multimedia show The Executioner's Last Songs, and a book collecting his art and writings, Nashville Radio. For his third solo album, Langford gathers a crew of fellow travelers from Waco Brothers, Pine Valley Cosmonauts, and members of a band Langford assembled via classified ad for a segment on the radio show This American Life.
Gold Brick (its full title is Gold Brick, Or Lies Of The Great Explorers, Or Columbus At Guantanamo Bay) moves slightly away from country and punk alike, embracing instead a rootsy but more urbane rock sound akin to Warren Zevon. It returns to one of Langford's favorite fascinations, the mythology and reality of his adopted homeland, which he views with an exile's eye and a humanist political consciousness that's outraged and amused by turns, but rarely as cynically acerbic as Zevon—barring the occasional caustic observation like "in every treaty that is signed, the seeds are sown for slaughter."
Perhaps self-deprecatingly, Langford has said that his solo albums are usually catch-alls for material that didn't fit anywhere else. But even though the songs on Gold Brick were written over a six-year period, they work remarkably well as a unified whole, complete with a callback to his 2004 disc All The Fame Of Lofty Deeds via another Procul Harum cover, this time an Elvis Costello-like take on "A Salty Dog." Langford moves with ease between sympathetic, bittersweet tales of proletarian discontent ("Workingman's Palace," "Buy It Now") and more allegorical, Bob Dylan-esque material like the album-closing rouser "Lost In America," in which a disoriented Christopher Columbus tries to make sense of modern daytime TV. It's a more jaundiced take on "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream," but though Langford sees America without rose-colored filters, he's still optimistic enough to see more than a nightmare.