Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros
Hellcat / Shock
was scared of this record when I first saw its bright orange spine flashing through the motley crew of CDs on the incoming shelf, just as I was scared of this record for the first week or so it sat on my desk, un-listened-to. Shit scared. Scared that it would be terrible, for one – Strummer’s material since the death rattle of The Clash has been patchy, at best – but perhaps more terrified that it would be so good that it would solidify my sadness (at his passing) into a lump of un-ignorable dread; dread at the possibility that my younger brother’s generation would never have such a rock and role model to look up to.
Thankfully, I needn’t have worried (on the first tip, at least) – Streetcore is a great album. You realise this from the moment “Coma Girl” shakes into life. Here’s Joe and his merry men being The Strokes better than The Strokes could ever be. Apparently Julian & Co. are fans of a bit of reggae – Bob Marley’s Legend album, probably – and they’ve even whacked some ‘reggae beats’ on their latest opus. Yeah, right. Joe Strummer shared his bus with the originators of the Kingston/London reggae sound back in the Clash days, and The Mescaleros play it with feeling, not with disaffected groove. “Coma Girl” mixes low, slinky rocksteady bass with a guitar jangle and chorus so full of longing it makes the back of your throat ache. “Get Down Moses” rumbles with dread beats and muddy bubbles of keyboard and Hammond organ, while Shanty Town brass drifts in and out like wind through sash windows. Strummer’s famed political conscience isn’t gone, it’s just gone to seed – he’s rangier and more expressionistic than he’s ever been, but when he wails “You gotta get down Moses … We’ve gotta make a new friend out of old enemies” over the middle eight from “Fly Like An Eagle” as produced by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, it’s nothing short of thrilling. Then there’s the Appalachian strum of “Long Shadow”, and the lanky rave-up of “Arms Aloft”, but they’re only placeholders for the second half of the album.
“Ramshackle Day Parade” sees Strummer musing on recent events in American history, opening up his heart rather than his head. As a result, the song does not offer the easy answers or quotable sound bites that a more pointed troubadour such as Billy Bragg might, but a mesmerizing picture of a confused society teetering on the brink after only just pulling itself out of the abyss. The sound recalls Eno’s “Apollo”, U-Roy, even Heroes; it’s beautiful in its disorder and rawness. Extending the melancholy, Strummer and accompanists Smokey Hormel and Bermont Tench take Marley’s “Redemption Song” and weave it into a very moving song indeed, but it’s Rick Rubin’s bare, echoing production that really gets the tears flowing. Strummer sings the song like Spencer Tracy to his hurdy-gurdy in “Captain, My Captain”, facing the sea and all the future beyond it. It’s hard not to be moved when he sings “So won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom / ‘Cause all I ever had, redemption songs”, because in the end, what does a musician have when they finally drift away? Photos fade, newspapers fold, fortunes get spent – you can’t take it with you, as John Barrymore so wisely advised in the Wilder film of the same name.
“Burning Streets” shudders into life with an acoustic strum before it melts into a glorious drone of strings and bass with the wide-screen scope of Paris, Texas or Beck’s “Paper Tiger”. It’s perhaps surprising to find the most political tracks on the album (this and “Ramshackle Day Parade”) are the most elegiac and disjointed, but that doesn’t lessen their impact. “Midnight Jam” sees Joe laying down faux Radio Luxembourg sound bites over a plangent Mescaleros jam, paying respect to Big Youth, “Not Fade Away”, and “the great originator, Mr. U-Roy – let it roll!” Closing track “Silver And Gold” (a cover of Bobby Charles’ “Before I Grow Too Old”), in its woozy barroom melancholia – Tymon Dogg’s fiddle playing in particular – and optimism (“I’m gonna do everything, silver and gold / And I gotta hurry up before I grow too old”), is poignant in light of Strummer’s passing. It’s important to remember though, unlike Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me In Your Heart For A While”, that Strummer never meant the track to serve as his eulogy, and we should not falsely eulogise him by over-analysing lyrics or adding unnecessary sentiment to this album. Instead, let Streetcore stand for what it is – one of the best albums of 2003, one of his best albums post-Clash, and as the highest note Joe Strummer could have exited on. But here’s hoping someone comes along soon to fill the monumental gap he’s left behind, because unlike a bad album, a world without people like Joe Strummer really is something to be scared of.
Reviewed by: Clem Bastow
Reviewed on: 2003-11-20