Like a group of friends with a smart, slightly sloppy cable-access program that airs once every few years, the recidivist rock collective known as the Mekons has checked in again with another episode, its first "proper" album since 1994's Retreat from Memphis. (In the meantime, the group produced the art/book/CD package Mekons United  and a CD collaboration with late punk writer Kathy Acker, Pussy, Queen of the Pirates , not to mention various solo efforts.)
Me is unafraid to be conceptual, although the album uses a fairly light touch. Always eager to push their musical sublimity toward ridiculousness (and vice versa), the Mekons have made a "career" out of erecting stately intellectual edifices and then rocking the hell out of them (necessary if you are going to include suggested readings with an album called Honky Tonkin'). Fortunately for Me (and the rest of us), the music can easily support the weight of the concept.
The album's central "character," Me, wades around in the muddy waters of selfish consumerism ("do these pants come pressed") and sexual longing ("come on my tits") -- and both come out sounding equally X-rated. Me is sexy and bored with sex. Me is shopping lists set to music. Me swaggers and Me stutters. Me is hostile when threatened. Me is a horny dog.
The familiar combination of voices -- Tom Greenhalgh's cool disdain, Sally Timms' alluring purr, Jon Langford's pure rock shout -- mirrors a varied use of effects and instruments (for example, oud and fiddle). The combinations result in Mekons dub, Mekons lounge, Mekons rave, and Mekons rock, though the overall sound is more consistent than one would imagine -- with a bit of we've-got-a-beatbox-and-we-kind-of-know-how-to-use-it thrown in.
The first track, "Enter the Lists," sets the tone. Taking a second to gel, the fiddle and drum lean on each other for a moment before tumbling ahead with the rest of the band. "Watching and counting and sex and TV/ Enter the lists and you pull on some armor/ Yamaha drum machine, pictures and pubs/ Of papers and juices, and toothpaste and Charlie," Langford chants behind a steady thump. Timms appears with a recitation of a drugstore shopping list; sound effects color the vocal track.
Things continue on "Down," a thick, bluesy stroll, over which Timms sails smoothly, reporting that "the bunny is bleeding." This may be the work of the "talking whore dog" that relates to the next track, "Narrative." A punchy charger, the song drops down on all fours to take in the canine perspective; not surprisingly, things aren't so different down there: "your odor disgusts me but I roll over and beg/ Give it to me Ö " Slide, oud, sitar (?), doggie panting and drum machine are put to fine use.
"Tourettes" and "Come and Have a Go If You Think You're Hard Enough" present a relatively unobstructed view into the id-driven mind of Me. Rico Bell's accordion acts as stable accompaniment to the stuttered porn chatter of the jerky "Tourettes"; "Come and Have a Go" was better when heard live last year as a spontaneous (or so it seemed at the time) encore.
The story of Me is captured most successfully on "Gin & It" and its wordless reprise, "Back to Back." Rolling, swaying, grooving forward with a group vocal and a head-bobbing beat, the song finds "Me and all the other its ... dancing, dancing round the square" (causing nearby fathers to draw their children closer to their sides). It's the centerpiece of the Mekons' current live show, and deservedly so.
What might be the voice of Me shows up from time to time as an extremely low-pitched voice, and it is on the lower frequencies that the music comes through clearest -- the combination of drummer Steve Goulding and bassist Sarah Corina revealing itself to be one of the best sections in rock, if also one of the most underappreciated.
The album runs out of gas toward the end, with an aimless, ambling "Whiskey Sex Shack" (points for the title, though) and a rousing, if overlong, meltdown "Thunder" -- kinda "Sister Me."
There is tremendous variety here, and the variety results in a sense that each song is creating itself as it spools out. If one of the pleasures of pop is the inevitability of the next chorus, or the predictable (and satisfying) resolution of the next line, then one of the pleasures of Mekon rock is simply the (equally satisfying) unexpected or unpredictable.
On 1994's Retreat from Memphis, Sally Timms sings, "hold back the chaos at the edge of your eyes, that lies beyond the center of vision." What you get when you stop holding is Me.