Sally Timms's new solo album, To the Land of Milk and Honey, begins with a classic bit of world-weary torch singing: "Round up the usual suspects / Somebody has broke my heart again." The mix of languor and humor delivered by her remarkable and expressive voice sets the tone nicely for the striking collection of originals and covers that follow. The record is the first of Timms's solo work to be released in America; her show this Saturday at the Double Door is her first solo appearance in Chicago.
Timms's voice is of course also one of the most beloved features of the Mekons, the onetime British punk band whose center of gravity has shifted in recent years
to Chicago. While cofounder Tom Greenhalgh still lives in Britain, his partner, Jon Langford, now lives here with his wife, as does former drummer Steve Goulding. Timms, who lives in New York with her husband, made the record here with Langford and a host of other Chicago musicians, notably Kingsize studio co-owner Dave Trumfio, who helped produce the album, played bass, and contributed a song. Langford, Goulding, Trumfio, and Poi Dog Pondering's Dave Crawford will be playing with Timms this weekend.
Timms's conversation, delivered in a caustic English drawl, is a challenging mixture of sarcasm ("Those little tunes I'd been writing--I had to share them with everyone"), seriousness ("I don't believe in using irony. What's the point? Then it's just a joke record"), self-deprecation ("I'm the laziest woman in any business"), sharp ripostes to questions on subjects she deems boring ("Great. Fas-cin-a-ting"), and wild stories of the Mekons sliding across America on a slick of alcohol and vomit.
Timms grew up outside of Leeds. She sang in the church and school choirs, but soon had her head turned around--first by glam ("David Bowie was my ultimate hero") and then by punk. "I remember going into W.H. Smith. They printed the chart listing every week, and there'd be a big gap where number one was, because it was [the Sex Pistols' banned] 'God Save the Queen.'"
After meeting the Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley she got into the punk scene and intermittently did musical projects, collaborating with Shelley on "a drug record, basically, a punk drug record" called Hangahar; with a country-flavored group that used violin and accordion; and with an all-female outfit called the Shee Hees, which "was all experimental, no structure. We did Lionel Ritchie songs. Our showstopper was 'Hello.' We were riot grannies."
But the musical loci in Leeds were a pair of extraordinary political punk bands--the Gang of Four and the Mekons. The Mekons were iconoclasts even by the extreme standards of the time: their first single was "Never Been in a Riot," a pomp-pricking jab at the Clash's "White Riot." When Timms met up with them they didn't impress her. "I thought they were so ridiculous I was almost embarrassed," she says mercilessly. "We'd be in the audience laughing. We couldn't believe that a band this bad had the nerve to play. It wasn't my scene. They were a shambolic mess." But by the mid-80s the reborn Mekons were in the process of creating a highly intellectual rock 'n' roll informed by a wildly impressionistic take on American country and western. Timms joined because--"Well, Tom now says that it was because I was Jon's girlfriend and having a bad time of it and he thought it might help us."
Amid a classic series of Mekons albums she put out a solo record, Somebody's Rocking My Dreamboat, in 1988 that never saw American release. For her second effort she acknowledges wanting to make a "classic sounding record." The songs she chose--which include surprisingly compelling tracks from John Cale, Jackie DeShannon, and Procul Harum, as well as four terrific new Timms-Langford numbers--take on political and personal issues with a grace and perspective that stand apart from the self-obsessiveness of the alternative age. "I don't have any sexual demons," she says. "I never had a problem getting a boyfriend. I don't know if I set my standards too low, but a lot of the kind of problematic [themes] that a lot of younger women have don't seem to affect me so much."
Instead she uses her alluring and powerful vocals--"I have a very smooth-sounding voice, a Julie Andrews voice, basically"--to animate sociopolitical themes like those concerning the outsiders in Procul Harum's "Homburg" and Trumfio's "Junk Barge," and those brought up in the mordant commentary in the closing of "Deep": "You're too nice to say a thing / As they hold your head under." The Mekons took punk's ideals to heart and, like exactly none of their contemporaries, never lost them; nearly 20 years on, they have the empty pockets to prove it. Their career and Timms's new album are reminders that punk was something other than a musical form: "We don't try to build up a mystique," Timms says seriously. "People view us as their friends, not rock idols. That's our legacy from punk: that it could be anyone up there and you shouldn't distance yourself too much."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Yael Routtenberg.