Tuesday, December 22, 2009

December 22: Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, "Streetcore"

Artist: Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros
Album: Streetcore
Year: 2003
Label: Hellcat

For everyone, there are moments in life that we can recall with ease as to exactly what we were doing at that particular point in life. These occasions, whether joyous or tragic, are markers of time in each persons' life, and they can often tell the tale of the person in question. Though I have made a point to keep my personal tastes out of my blogs throughout this year, I simply cannot overlook that December 22, 2002 will forever stand as one of "those days" in my life. It was late that evening that I received an email that simply said: "Joe is dead. En route to London." This email came from a friend of mine who had access to such information, and this was how I learned of the sudden and tragic death of one of the men who truly shaped my life: John Graham Mellor, better known as Joe Strummer. Best known as the driving force behind The Clash, Strummer stands today as one of the most powerful vocalists and greatest lyricists of his generation. Inspiring generations after him to "question authority," "know your rights," and that "the future is unwritten," Strummer was able to touch music listeners in ways like no other performer in music history. At the time of his death at the age of 50, Strummer was in the midst of finishing up his third full length recording since re-appearing after nearly a decade away from music. Though a majority of critics failed to see the absolute genius in his first two efforts with his new band, The Mescaleros, the album that would emerge nearly ten months to the day following his passing would prove to be some of his most stunning work ever. Leaving no stone unturned and revealing his wide range of influences, Joe Strummer left a stunning final gift to the world in the form of the 2003 release, Streetcore.

Still full of a fierce, yet somehow friendly demeanor, Strummer presents everything from solo acoustic numbers to some of the finest straightforward rock and roll tunes that he has ever written. In many ways, he was able to present such a wide range of sounds because by this point in his career, he had been largely forgotten by the masses. In interviews at this time, Strummer showed time and time again how much he was enjoying this anonymity, and for a man who once fronted "The Only Band That Matters," it remains clear that at the end of the day, Strummer preferred a smaller audience with which he could intimately connect, as opposed to a stadium of faceless people. Like many artists such as Muddy Waters, and John Coltrane, it was the later work of Strummer that truly showed his talents, and after experiencing his work with The Mescaleros, one can see the entire catalog of The Clash in a completely different light. Though The Clash had dabbled in mixing together the punk ethos with the reggae sound, Strummer leaves little question to his influence, as he re-arranges the ending, and puts his own magnificent spin on the Bob Marley classic, "Redemption Song." Strummer also takes time on the record to address one of the most significant issues of the day, as "Ramshackle Day Parade" remains one of the most moving and poignant songs as Strummer pays tribute to those lost in the "9/11" tragedy. Even with this abundance of "heavy" sentiments and history behind the record, Streetcore is without question a celebration of life, and the album is teeming with an uplifting and positive mood.

The Mescaleros stand today as one of the finest backing bands in history, and every song on Streetcore makes it clear that these musicians were fully prepared to follow Strummer in any direction. From the rock of "Coma Girl" and "All In A Day" to the wonderfully melodic "Burnin' Streets" to the funky feel of "Get Down Moses," one can only imagine the songs that Strummer still had inside. Playing everything from guitar to flute to piano, Martin Slattery proves not only to be one of the finest musicians of his generation, but one of the best songwriting partners with whom Strummer ever worked. Utilizing an equal number of instruments, along with songwriting and production work, Scott Shields forms the final part, along with Strummer and Slattery of one of the most powerful musical forces that the world has ever heard. Rounded out by bassist Simon Stafford and drummer Luke Bullen, The Mescaleros excel in every musical form, and they did a brilliant job of finishing up the remaining tracks after Strummer's passing. The band also takes a track on the album to pay a fitting tribute to their fallen leader, as the blissful "Midnight Jam" features sound bytes from Strummer talking about his favorite music that was recorded during his handful of BBC Radio programs which were aptly titled, "London Calling." The song, produced by Rick Rubin, is perfect like no other song ever recorded, as it truly evokes the spirit of Strummer with every listen. It is this wide range in musical styles that Strummer was striving for on this record, and the bands' ability to play brilliantly alongside him on each song is one of the keys that makes Streetcore such a phenomenal recording.

Though some of the music may be more mellow and relaxed then that of his work with The Clash, Joe Strummer sounds as good and powerful as ever. Bringing his trademark raspy, growling voice, Strummer re-stakes his claim as one of the greatest and most captivating vocalists in history, as he once again proves that "what" he says is equally as important as "how" he delivers the lyrics. As has always been the case with the vocal delivery of Joe Strummer, there is a certain "tongue-in-cheek" feel to a majority of his songs, as he is able to somehow keep the mood just a bit light, even when he is delivering powerful and moving lyrics. The albums' opening track, "Coma Girl," and "All In A Day" seem to imply that Strummer has found a new lease on life, and this is reflected in the fact that there is unquestionably a "spark" in his voice that had been absent even as far back as the final Clash records. Strummer wastes no time in bearing his soul, and Streetcore features some of the most provocative and soulful words that he ever wrote. In what can be seen as nothing less than a cruel irony, Streetcore features Joe Strummer's tribute to his own fallen hero, in the form of the simple, acoustic masterpiece, "Long Shadow." Written in remembrance of Johnny Cash, anyone who is even remotely familiar with Cash's music will hear this as a fitting tribute, even without the knowledge of the songs' meaning. The final lines of the song, which are sung/spoken by Strummer, are likely the exact way in which Strummer would want to be remembered, as he snarls, "...somewhere in my soul...there's always rock AND roll..."

Without question, Joe Strummer will forever stand as one of the most important figures in the entire history of music. From his brilliant work as the frontman for The Clash, to the way in which he fused together sounds from all over the world with the straightforward, honest ethos of punk rock, Strummer gave the world musical gifts unlike that of any other performer. Shaping and influencing countless musicians who followed, Strummer's name continues to demand the utmost respect to this day. After disappearing from the music scene for more then a decade, Strummer surrounded himself with some of the finest musicians on the planet, and along with The Mescaleros, he began to explore new musical territory and create some of the finest music of his career. Cementing his name as a legend, as well as proving that regardless of the style of music one played, it was the soul behind the songs that mattered most, Joe Strummer was clearly on the verge of once again re-writing all of the "rules" of music when he was taken from this world far too soon. Truth be told, there are very few moments in music that are as heart-wrenching as one will find at the end of the album, as after playing the stripped down, grab-life-by-the-horns song, "Silver And Gold," Strummer mutters his final ever recorded words, as he simply states, "OK, that's a take..." Such final words, eerily predicting his passing (which would occur less than a week later), along with the overall sentiment of the song which stands as his last, are in many ways a fitting end for a man who truly lived through his music. One need not be a fan of The Clash to enjoy Joe Strummer's work with The Mescaleros, as their 2003 release, Streetcore is without question one of the most magnificent, genre-defying albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Coma Girl," "Long Shadow," and "Burnin' Streets."

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