The iconic Mekon, drunken Waco Brother, historically grounded Pine Valley Cosmonaut and esteemed visual artist Jon Langford has one major problem. Behind all the smirking literate cynicism the Mekons are known for; behind the negating shield of stupor and the aloofness of the artistic veil; behind the ruddy Welshman's oh-so-British piss-take and wind-up ways, there lies the unwavering belief -- dare we say it, optimism? -- of an honest-to-god American. Yeah, that's right: This vehement anti-capital punishment activist, outspoken socialist, art-school punk rocker of the old-school '77 variety secretly bleeds apple pie and Windy City calories.
And if Langford's last decade-plus of cowboy and country-western superstar paintings, alt-country godfather-isms and general Americana slinging didn't prove it to you, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds will. Nominally a concept album about the country-and-cowboy star Lofty Deeds, the brief 30 minutes of All the Fame of Lofty Deeds is really a love-hate letter to that secret optimist. At times it's a self-reinforcement, as in "The Country Is Young," a direct defense of the U.S. of A.: "resist the temptation to slap the child down / realize its age / realize the potential / deflect all the rage."
Lofty Deeds is a triumph for Langford, finally able to channel the storytelling symbolism, the reverence for the past, and the critical look at the future that's been in his artwork but sometimes lacking in his solo attempts at music. What comes through strongest is the adoration of American stubbornness: No matter how many embarrassing falls we suffer, we're always brushing off our chaps and getting back on the horse. For Langford, that stubbornness has always been most symbolically portrayed by country music -- Johnny Cash's raised middle finger, George Jones riding that lawnmower miles for a drink. The consummate image of Langford's adored country anti-hero appears in "Nashville Radio": the whittled-down, pilled-up drunk; a semi-violent beast of inestimable talent, all wasted and, eventually, destroyed by the establishment. (See also Langford's unwavering love of Leeds United Football Club.)
All that symbolism and art-school crap aside, there's some fine li'l country ditties on here, too. "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" isn't just a great title, it's the first successful country-fication of African thumb piano, and "Sputnik 57" would be a hit if there were still localized country radio. Notably, much of Lofty Deeds is drum kit-free, in a nod to the good-ol' hillbilly ways -- and to Langford's attempt to play almost everything himself. Two excellent exceptions: Chicago session master Jon Rice leaves mean country guitar licks all over the place, and the closing track -- the standard "Trouble in Mind," recorded live in the Second City -- features the Pine Valley Cosmonauts teaching a teary-eyed America one mighty C&W lesson.