“Well Cracklin’ Rosie said Let’s Get it On (won’t you Bang a Gong) / with a wall of sound and Da Doo Ron Ron / Gasoline Alley, Roll Away the Stone / Yeah, we’re singing Elvis all the way home.” With that rollicking chorus to their new pub-rock anthem, “Singing Elvis,” The Men They Couldn’t Hang pay tribute to their musical heroes of the ’60s and ’70s on their new CD, The Cherry Red Jukebox. It’s fitting that they look back in this, the 20th anniversary of their first single, their 1984 cover of Eric Bogle’s “Green Fields of France.”
Jukebox, which takes its name from that second track, the one about Elvis, et. al., is a solid mix of pub-rockers and sentimental ballads sure to please the fans. It hits the ground running with “The Sunrise,” lead vocalist Phil “Swill” Odgers sneering Paul Simmonds’ lyrics in his best Joe Strummer homage. The Clash connection is more explicit in the soaring bridge, “I kick the walls, kick the door / can’t see the sun anymore / waiting for sunrise,” over distorted power chords and a wailing harmonica.
The homage to Clash and the Ramones continues in “I Loved the Summer of Hate,” a big slab of garage punk with unexpectedly wistful lyrics about an old leather jacket and the days of swilling cough syrup and beer in front of the Marshall stacks.
But The Men aren’t a one trick pony by any means. Having started out as something of an alternative country band like The Mekons, they continue in that vein with “Silver Gun,” a fiddle-driven outlaw ballad whose protagonist is a female robber with the eponymous weapon in her purse; and the Cajun-style stomp of “The Hill,” the ballad of a crippled old sailor who struggles up the hill from his bedsit to the pub every day. “Colwyn Bay,” a poignant folk-rocker about a young sea widow, is laced with accordion and fiddle over acoustic guitars. And “Ten Grand” is a swinging mid-tempo R & B number about an old gambler begging for one last stake.
There are some slower and mellower songs as well. “Rivertown” is a tribute to the harbor and the lessons it has to teach the young traveler; “The Red Rocks of Spain” is a road-trip/hitch-hiker ballad that sees the protagonist and his lady cruising the length of Africa; “Ride Again” is a gentle plea from a man to a woman for one last trip together before their relationship falls apart completely; and “Highwater” is a pastoral exploration of the tides as a metaphor for life and death.
Since reuniting in 1996 after a five-year hiatus, The Men They Couldn’t Hang have proven that rock isn’t just a young men’s game or a freak-show Rolling Stones-style circus. Mature fellows with some real life experience have something to say, and they can still by god rawk when they say it. So hold that lighter high and sing along with ’em.