- The Washington Times - Monday, November 10, 2003

Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros

Streetcore

Hellcat Records

Unlike Warren Zevon, Joe Strummer didn’t have foreknowledge of his death. The late Mr. Zevon, who survived with terminal lung cancer longer than his doctors had told him he would, crafted what he knew would be his final album, battling time, recording in those intervals when he was physically able.

Mr. Strummer (born John Mellor) died suddenly of a heart attack last December at 50; he had no idea the album on which he was working with the Mescaleros, with whom he co-wrote each of the eight original tracks, would be a posthumous swan song.

The last cut, a countrified cover of Bobby Charles’ 1952 classic “Before I Grow Too Old” (rechristened “Silver and Gold”) is a piercing prophesy: “I’m gonna go out dancing every night / I’m gonna see all the city lights / And do everything, silver and gold / I got to hurry up before I grow too old.”

“Streetcore,” strong, assured, gutsy and invigorating, feels as if Mr. Strummer felt the urgent lash of mortality; it’s at least as good as the Clash’s “Sandinista!” and wouldn’t shrink next to “London Calling.”

Mr. Strummer’s voice is a sneering bark on Clash records and is at once vulnerable and forceful here, imperfect but full of passion.

Stylistically, “Streetcore” is cautiously experimental, making tasteful use of drum looping and electronica that gives songs such as “Ramshackle Day Parade” a rough beauty and the straightforward rock of “All in a Day” added vigor and bounce.

Here, for the first time in his solo career, Mr. Strummer seems to be comfortable with the legacy of the Clash.

With “Arms Aloft,” a kicking keg-party rocker, he wears it proudly on his sleeve, and you can hear the ghostly echo of a Mick Jones harmony in the singalong chant of the chorus.

On “Burnin’ Streets,” the Clash is given a knowing nod with the recurring line “London is burning,” while “Midnight Jam,” an instrumental jam with a staticky Mr. Strummer voice-over interrupting as if from a faraway broadcast tower, announces: “This is London calling.”

“Coma Girl,” a character-laden song inspired lyrically by Bob Dylan, shifts effortlessly between dub-style reggae and driving eighth-note rock that makes the Strokes sound like skiffle.

“Get Down Moses” continues in a loping rock-reggae vein, a form the Mescaleros — multi-instrumentalist Martin Slattery, guitarist Scott Shields, bassist Simon Stafford and drummer Luke Bullen — learned well from the Clash.

Mr. Strummer, in fine lyrical shape here, invokes the memory of the Jewish patriarch in an abstract lament about the modern unpromised land: “You gotta get down Moses out in Tennessee / They’re putting up a theme park called the Sea of Galilee.”

Thanks to Mr. Strummer’s widow, Luce Strummer, a Rick Rubin-produced cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” is included in the set.

At first blush, the Marley staple is simultaneously too sacred and overplayed, but Mr. Strummer, with help from guitarist Smokey Hormel and keyboardist Benmont Tench, gives it an uncliched once-over.

One suspects, too, that the late Mr. Marley would have approved of a kindred lefty such as Mr. Strummer essaying his best-known song.

The only misfire is the instrumental mentioned above, “Midnight Jam.” Although it drags aimlessly for almost six trip-hoppy minutes before finally running out of breath, it’s still an interesting hiccup.

All told, “Streetcore” is tough, taut and cohesive. No one can know if Mr. Strummer was consoling his own spirit with the resolute lyric of the Celtic-styled “Long Shadow,” but it’s nice to think so:

“You cast a long shadow / And that is your testament.”


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