Usually I hesitate to listen to solo albums by the frontmen of bands I absolutely love. Too often, the singer indulges himself and the album leaves you wanting the restraints the band put in place. I first got into the Clash sometime in 1999, and wanted everything that they ever put out. (I don’t count Cut the Crap as a Clash album in case you were wondering.) Sometime later, I discovered that Joe Strummer put out another album with a new backing band dubbed the Mescaleros. It couldn’t possibly be good, I remember thinking.
About a year or so later, I finally did break down and buy Art Rock & The X-Ray Style. I knew right away it wouldn’t sound like The Clash or be as good as their debut or London Calling. What possibly could? (Even the band themselves never reached those heights again.) But what shocked me, was how much it didn’t sound like The Clash. Except for one song (“Techno D-Day”) there’s nothing on the album that even sounds remotely like The Clash. Instead, Strummer takes on the listener on a laid-back groove that’s part folk, part world-beat that could only be made by the man who fronted a band where every single genre imaginable was tried on Sandinista!
“Has anybody seen the morning sun?” Strummer asks on the opening track “Tony Adams”. For anyone else, this line might sound trite, but Strummer had been lost in the wilderness for years following the demise of the Clash. Now, he’s revitalized with an album that actually sounds perfect for a late 40-something year old man. The morning sun has come up to him, and he’s taking you on the road to rock and roll. The song “On The Road to Rock and Roll” was originally written for Johnny Cash, but I’m not sure that it would fit Cash’s style stripped down style that he perfected late in life. Strummer’s version takes blends two pieces of of rock and roll together – it’s led by a country/folk riff but the backing band plays a hip-hop beat.
I often find myself listening to Art Rock & The X-Ray Style whenever I can’t find something particular that I want to listen. Every single track is of high quality. Strummer is still political in parts throughout the album, but he doesn’t beat you over the head or demand something of you like he did with the Clash. It’s him enjoying music, and its infectious for the listener.
His other two albums with the Mecaleros weren’t as focused. Global A-Go took the world-beat of Art Rock, a bit too far and Strummer seemed to forget about the songs. Streetcore could have been very good, but as it wasn’t completed at the time of his death in 2002, it feels too much like the collection of out-takes that it was.
Even if the world wasn’t listening like they were with London Calling, Strummer achieved a renaissance late in life with Art Rock & The X-Ray Style worthy of a legend.