Sound and Fury

Strumming Through a World’s Worth of Music

For the last couple of months, I’ve been listening to all kinds of music, in very large quantities, sometimes in order to review it, sometimes simply to check out some music I’d heard of but never really heard. In order to keep up, I hardly ever listen to any one song or album more than a few times before moving on. (My iPod informs me I haven’t listened to any song more than 10 times…one of the juicy tracks off Blur’s recent Think Tank). But in the last week, I’ve managed to listen to a new album nearly nine times. I’ve fallen in love, you see.

There’s a distinct thrill to listening to music of all kinds (my playlist is apt to jump from ZZ Top to Handel’s Messiah…top that.) It’s refreshing, in a kind of hairpin turn, mind-bending sort of a way. If people ask you what music you listen to, you can shake your head slowly, with a wry smile and honestly say, “Oh…all kinds. That’s the kind of guy I am.” And wait for the women (or men) to be irresistibly seized by the magnetism of your eclectic, windswept personality.

But I suspect this is a lie. Nobody is really “that kind of guy.” I like all kinds of music, absolutely, and I would get hopelessly bored if restricted in my listening habits. But there is some part of me that is forever looking out for a really good rock album. Cue Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros.

It’s not that I think rock is a superior form; I’m not an eclectic, not an elitist. But I can’t help it, rock is my thing. This is unfortunate at the moment because rock has recently been sounding pretty moribund, yet again. Rock has been proclaimed dead more times than Jason, but usually, as now, it’s just dozing in the back, passed out from too much sex and drugs. Which is why I’m having so much fun with the Mescaleros and their new album Streetcore.

Discovering a really good new album offers many of the pleasures of exploring a new city or country, full of unknown history, odd geography and surprising characters. Streetcore is no exception: The final album by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, it is a ramshackle, raucous trip through Strummer’s wires. Alas, it is the last of its kind: at the end of 2002, several months before the album’s release, Joe Strummer, former frontman of punk originators The Clash, died of a heart attack. See what I mean about history?

Strummer was born the song of a diplomat and spent his early childhood in Algeria, giving Strummer an enduring taste for internationally-tinged music. Rather than take up the sitar, though, Strummer founded The Clash, the greatest punk band to ever rule the earth. Because all good things must come to an end, The Clash broke up, but Strummer returned a few years ago with the Mescaleros, a band that allowed him to stretch his world music muscles a little more. So the thing about falling in love with a Strummer album is that it reminds you exactly how hot The Clash were, provoking repeated relistens of London Calling (one of the greatest albums of all time). And then there’s the entire Mescalero back catalogue to explore. This album is not just an album.

Streetcore was put together from a set of recordings Strummer was working on in the months before he died, so it’s not always the most coherent collection of songs, but that’s part of it’s beauty: the album has personality beyond being just a collection of good songs. It has the makings of legend attached to it. And the songs are a goldmine.

The album kicks off with the attention-grabbing single “Coma Girl” which sounds like vintage Clash, only more pop- and reggae-tinged than the Clash ever permitted themselves. Strummer’s voice is guttural and slovenly, the antithesis of all that is slick and shiny in contemporary music. The tinge of age in Strummer’s voice gives his lyrics a classiness and authority that can’t be bought or faked, particularly on folksy ballads like “Long Shadow.” Strummer even carries off a straight-up cover of “Redemption Song,” playing it as straight and simple as possible and letting the words and the weight of his voice speak for themselves. As the organ creeps in towards the end of the song, you realise you are in the presence of majesty.

—Crimson Arts columnist Andrew R. Iliff can be reached at iliff@fas.harvard.edu. This is his final column of the semester.