The Whiteness of the Wales

The New Orleans musical method of reflecting on the city has for years been the catalogue of popular places. On his album Skull Orchard, Jon Langford – who’s playing tonight at Chickie Wah Wah with Thousand $ Car, and did our 2009 Jazz Fest Bible covers – examines his hometown of Newport, Wales with a slightly different strategy. Significant landmarks show up in the songs (“Transporter Bridge,” “Pill,” “Aberfoyle”), but rather than let the place names evoke the good times, they’re parts of the landscape of the working class lives that he describes in language that is sometimes literal and sometimes figurative. Lyrically, he creates a picture of a town of physical people who’ve lost their place in a technological world, but his punk background shows up in his love of the hard-charging song, which adds a rebellious (and therefore hopeful) voice to the songs. In fact, it’s only when you break the songs down to the lyrics that the darkness is evident; on a casual listen, it’s one of his most consistently hard-driving, entertaining albums.

The album was originally released in 1998, but it has been out of print for years. Recently, Langford reissued it as part of Skull Orchard Revisited, a hardback book that expands on his examination of Newport (as well as the album, with songs not on the original release). In it, his brother, science fiction author David Langford, writes an A to Z of Newport, building a picture of life in the town one glossary entry at a time. The effect is neither indulgent nor simply nostalgic, though. It’s consistent with his interest in presenting working class life not as a stick to beat the wealthy with, but to give those lives a sense of reality.

At the same time, his sense of humor leads to an extended fictional conversation between Flipper and an aging, forgetful Moby Dick. Those segments play off the the Wales/whales pun, and they approach his homeland more metaphorically. As in some of his best songs, the figurative characters and actions don’t all map to real life in a one-to-one way, but the narrative illuminates the big picture even though the light is indirect.

Jon Langford plays Chickie Wah Wah Thursday at 10 p.m. backed by Thousand $ Car. He also opens a show of his paintings at LeMieux Galleries Saturday night.