Interview With Mekons Singer Sally Timms

Tell Sally Timms that you loved her first (and only) visit to St. Louis with the Mekons last August, and she'll probably tell you what she told me -- with a touch of tartness and anxiety -- as she walked away in the basement of Chicago's Double Door club: "But that's not me." True enough. But the Mekons are how we got to know Timms, and putting their indelible stamp on rock aside to consider her solo effort -- To the Land of Milk and Honey (feel good all over) -- is difficult. Difficult, but not impossible, especially when Milk and Honey's 11 songs are so good, and so distinctive. Timms co-wrote five of the songs (four with Mekon and Waco Brother Jon Langford), and she utterly inhabits a choice of covers ranging from John Cale to the Palace Brothers to Procol Harum. Milk and Honey is an album of love songs for adults, a night journey that travels from twilight to aubade. It needs quiet, and a good listen or two, before its beauty sinks in. And when it does sink in, it stays, and lingers. Timms is happy that the LP has this slow, but ultimately satisfying effect. "A lot of people have had that reaction to it," Timms tells me on the phone a few nights before her Chicago gig. "I'm quite pleased about it." In addition to Langford, Timms calls upon a very Chicago cast that includes Jesus Lizard's Duane Denison, Poi Dog Dave Crawford, Kingsize Studio owner and bass whiz Dave Trumfio and Big Black guitarist Santiago Durango. "You make it sound like it was a conscious decision," Timms says. "Everyone I know in Chicago is a musician." She jokes that she was able, in recording Milk and Honey, "to bring out the feminine side" of her male sessioneers. In fact, only one track -- the guitar-driven "Longing, Madness and Lust" -- smacks of the Mekons' heady mix of noise, sex and politics, and it is stripped down considerably. The rest of Milk and Honey is muted, more watercolor than day-glo. Moods and mandolins bleed into anodyne and accordions. Milk and Honey's ideas that frame Timms' voice -- and not, as happens with the Mekons, the other way around. That doesn't mean that there aren't any ideas, or even familiar ideas, on Milk and Honey. The opening track, "Round Up," is a languorous Timms/Langford torcher that explores heartache -- pure, simple, and decidedly unpolitical: Round up The usual suspects Somebody Has broke my heart again By "Deep" -- another Langford/Timms collaboration, and the LP's closer -we're not much further on. It, too, is a moody ode to desires and their lack of fulfillment, underscored by a prickly, but haunting guitar line: No seeds no membranes here We keep living off the streets Reservations and preserves People get what they deserve Timms' cover of John Cale's "Half Past France" is haunting, with a flugel horn teasing the ear and tracking the song's utter self-absorption. Her take on Jackie DeShannon's "Every Time She Walks in the Room" turns it into an upbeat, but not over-eager, country waltz, with Dan Scanlon's violin pushing the song along. If you're getting the impression that every little touch on Milk and Honey is placed precisely, and tastefully, then you're getting it right. The accordion on Stuart Moxham's desperately sad "It Says Here" gives the tune a melancholy warmth. Trumfio's "Junk Barge" is a found poem embellished by tuba, slightly out-of-tune piano, and a pair of duelling mandolins to sheer profundity. The piano and violin on Timms' cover of Procol Harum's "Homburg" bring that high-flown song gently to earth. Even more straight ahead tunes -- most notably the Timms/Langford "King Ludwig" and "Longing, Madness and Lust" -- have a stately, even elegiac feel to them. That feel, says Timms, is what she was aiming for with the record. "Having been around," Timms opines. "I know what I'm good at. And what I'm not. I'm not great at a higher tempo, and I like to keep it in a certain pitch range." The muted, mid-tempo feel of Milk and Honey, she adds, "let's you get a lot more nuance into the way you sing. You can't do anything with some of the faster things." Timms' voice is certainly unique in rock, and it's a big reason that many Mekons' tracks are so appealing. Like good socialist artists, the Mekons definitely favor the Brechtian concept of education through alienation ("Verfremdung" is the clinical word for it) -- dense collages of sound, buzzing guitars, sawing fiddles, drum machine, grunts and drones among the melodies. But like Brecht, the Mekons are savvy enough to know that no art really works unless you're compelled to cathect with it as well. (The next Mekon project, for instance, will be a collaboration with punk novelist Kathy Acker this summer on a lesbian pirate sea shanty album -- sounds like pure alienation and affection.) Timms' voice is pure enough and gorgeous enough to compel affection; she's the Mekons' less-than-secret weapon in that respect. But Milk and Honey demonstrates her power even more convincingly, and a greater length. Timms never pushes sentiment into schmaltz, or passion into histrionics. Her palette is richer than Chrissie Hynde's, more drily sexual than Johnnette Napolitano's, and just prettier than Marianne Faithful's. Stunning is the only way to describe how Timms tames the surging and potentially overwrought chorus in Cale's "Half Past France" to her own ends, or tarnishes the shiny pop cliches of Jackie DeShannon's "Every Time She Walks in the Room" into a dark, but gleaming magic lamp. There may be singers who can outshout, or even outsing Timms, but there's no one in contemporary rock (well, maybe Bowie, at his best) who marries their voice to intuition and intelligence the way that she does. In concert, Timms' qualities shine just as brightly. Her Double Door gig -- where she was backed by Langford, Trumfio, Crawford and Mekons drummer Steve Goulding -- was a shimmering 70 minutes of desolate romance punctuated alternately by dry or wacky humor. Timms came out in a greenish pantsuit, clutching water bottles to her chest, and joking that a Chicago Reader photo that had run that week "made my tits look huge. And they're not really." The band then revved through most of Milk and Honey, including a brilliant version of "King Ludwig" (preceded by a short public confab between Timms and Langford on what the song was "about" -- they settled on "King Ludwig walking though Central Park and watching the Grateful Dead play for the Czar"), and a devastating "Homburg." Heckling was invited. Hugh Grant was called a "wanker" and a "tosser." A shimmering version of "Deep" capped off the evening. It was all Sally Timms. And it was over all too soon. SIDEBAR: Timms Top Ten Here are ten songs sung by Sally Timms -- solo or with the Mekons -- that are enshrined in the jukebox of our hearts. 1. "Club Mekon" from The Mekons Rock 'N Roll (1989) -- The best opening lines in rock history -- "When I was just 17/ Sex no longer held a mystery/ I saw it as a commodity/ To be bought and sold/ Like rock 'n roll" -- sung by Timms in a jaded, decadent voice that cuts clean through the guitars and fiddles without a lick of irony or posturing. Brilliant. 2. "It Says Here" from To the Land of Milk & Honey (1995) -- Timms tackles this Stuart Moxham song with an aching, but languorous chill. 3. "Machine" from Retreat From Memphis (1994) -- A bleak Timms trip through the American landscape, sung with a world-weary dispassion. "I feel like the city is in me," she sings to a fade. By the time she's finished, we do too. 4. "Love Letter" from I (Heart) Mekons (1993) -- "I'll betray you with my body/ force feed you poison dressed as love." Timms soars on one of the most wrenching love/lust/despair songs you'll ever hear, from one of the most wrenching love/lust/despair-themed LPs ever recorded. 5. "If They Hang You" from Honkytonkin' (1987) -- One of Timms' first Mekons moments, and she doesn't waste it. The song is a country ode about Dashell Hammett's refusal to cooperate with HUAC; Timms turns it into more -- a love song from Calamity Jane to Cary Cooper at High Noon. 6. "Learning to Live On Your Own" from The Mekons Rock 'N Roll (1989) -- An slow, accordion-drenched ballad that socks you in the gut. "Please accept this message of my tears," sings Timms. Message received. 7. "Round Up" from To the Land of Milk & Honey (1995) -- "I didn't need/ I didn't need to get involved/ this climate has/ weakened my resolve." Timms co-wrote this mid-tempo torcher with Mekon Jon Langford, and burns it completely to the ground. 8. "Dora" from So Good It Hurts (1988) -- A Wuthering Heightsy bit of atmospheric landscape, with Timms sounding her most ghostly and ethereal. Spooky. 9. "Millionaire" from I (Heart) Mekons (1993) -- Another brilliant Timms opening ("Everybody's so in love/ But they don't touch or meet/Eyes all stinging eyes all red/ Bunch of flowers in the street"), delivered with a luscious, post-coital feel. Somewhere, however, the mood swings from love to greed (Lust corrodes my body. I've lost count of my lovers/ But I can count my money/ Forever and forever), and Timms swings with it. Devastating. 10. "Wild and Blue" from The Curse of the Mekons (1991) -- A classic take on a John Anderson country nugget, and the one mite of pity that the Mekons allow on the angriest, and most pitiless LP of the '90s. --Richard Byrne

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