Meursault – The Organ Grinder’s Monkey
(Song, By Toad Records, 2014)
Back in January, Scottish band Meursault did a Kickstarter to raise money for travel to the USA for SXSW and a two week tour of the East Coast. Despite a goal of 3,000 pounds, Meursault raised over 5,000 pounds (that’s what, like $800 US? The notes have funny colors, it’s hard to tell). The primary thing that folks received for their support was an as-yet unrecorded CD from the band that backers themselves could influence with requests for cover songs. The Organ Grinder’s Monkey is the product of that exercise, and it’s fantastic. In fact, despite the fact that Meursault seemingly had a successful SXSW and tour (they played the mighty Fergie’s Pub in Philly, which is a magical touchstone for me), The Organ Grinder’s Monkey is a hundred times more interesting than the familiar-yet-often-necessary Kickstarter story. Also, as we will see, it serves as an ambitious, vital epilogue to the band’s recorded body of work.
Since they first came to my attention five years ago or so, Meursault has become one of my favorite bands. Though largely unknown outside of Scotland and the UK (soon to be two separate entities?), the band seems at least somewhat well-loved at home, with support from the likes of BBC radio and playing festival shows like this:
Neil Pennycook is the main creative force behind Meursault, which grew from a solo project into a broader band over the years. Their music can be melodic and anthemic without being overwrought or pandering. Unlike, say, the Foghorns, whose songs are ultimately about us (and what shitheels we pretty much all are), Meursault isn’t a folk act in that their songs are all about Me/You. The songwriting is acutely personal and poetic, the instrumentation and arrangements can be both acoustically sparse and expansive, filling in space with synths, samples and surging electric guitars. Meursault incorporates elements of traditional folk, indie rock and electro-pop without sitting firmly in any particular camp. Prior to The Organ Grinder’s Monkey, the band put out three full lengths and several 7″ singles on Edinburgh’s venerable Song, By Toad Records (a wonderful little label that recently put out my band’s debut LP). Their entire back catalog is outstanding and I wholeheartedly recommend putting in a huge order with Song, By Toad to get it in your grubby paws ASAP. Coming up on Wednesday, August 13th, Meursault will play their farewell show at the Queens Hall in Edinburgh, and if there were a way I could finagle my way over there I most certainly would. It promises to be sad, triumphant and beautiful.
Turning attention back to The Organ Grinder’s Monkey, the track list alone is killer. The opener is a cover of Guided By Voices classic “Game of Pricks,” which Meursault makes into a dreamy, hypnotic mediation driven by kraut-rock-ish synths and percussion. There are relatively straightforward, yet gorgeous, covers of Low’s “Dinosaur Act,” the Mountain Goats’ “No Children,” and the traditional “He Was a Friend of Mine.” Every track is a victory, particularly the ingenious cover of Sunset Rubdown/Wolf Parade’s “I’ll Believe in Anything,” which to me is one of the signature songs of the ’00s. Neil’s vocals are in tremendous form throughout The Organ Grinder’s Monkey, and the band, which includes fellow Song, By Toad artist Rob St John and Reuben Taylor, of James Yorkston and the Athletes and Dutchess, is no-joke masterful and inspired. Take this cover of fellow Scottish band (one that’s been able to tour a bunch in the US) PAWS and ask yourself how many songs have you heard so far in 2014 that are this good?
There are more than just cover songs on The Organ Grinder’s Monkey. Kickstarter contributors were also asked to suggest songs from the Meursault catalog for reinterpretation. One of the songs that made the cut was “Dearly Distracted” from 2012’s Something For the Weakened , which the band reworked from a sweeping, somber ballad (with an almost 3 minute exploding ending) to a more upbeat, carnival-esque waltz.
As journalistic objectivity is not a particularly central tenant of Ye Olde Blog of Wax, I won’t hide the fact that I have the pleasure of knowing some of the people involved and that they’re awesome. On my last night in Edinburgh during a short visit back in May, Neil from Meursault and I played a small house show that Brian from FreshAir UK both hosted and recorded. Neil’s solo acoustic set was amazing, it was genuinely one of the warmest and most beautiful sets I’ve ever seen, one that you can stream or download right here. Do it, it’s free. It’s just sitting there in vast, cold space of SoundCloud waiting to be tripped over. Start tripping. That will have been my only experience with Meursault live in any form, and I’ve listen to those recordings more than pretty much anything else in the couple of months since Brian posted them.
It’s absurd and frustrating that a band as fucking great as Meursault will have begun and ended their run without really getting huge in their home country or really reaching an audience in America (and yet we continue to yawn under the shitty weight of never-ending jokey garage punk bands and Americana Apparel flannel shirt acts – fuck me). At the end of the proverbial day (and that day, sadly, approaches for Meursault), a band or artists’ body of work can live on, aside from whatever recognition or success they enjoyed or didn’t during their active run. It didn’t do Alex Chilton a whit of good while he was washing dishes and playing frat parties to make ends meet in the South during the ’80s, but the three Big Star albums he made (and the world largely ignored for years) are god damn treasures. The entire Meursault catalog, I firmly believe, is a treasure as well, one that you can order/download right now. Better yet, if you’re in the vicinity of Edinburgh next Wednesday, go to Queen’s Hall and make a memory.