Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - The Hellcat Years [digital] (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros

The Hellcat Years [digital] (2012)

Hellcat Records

If you have any sense at all, you like the Clash. Maybe you prefer the punkier material on The Clash and Give 'Em Enough Rope. Maybe you like the more dub-influenced mid-period stuff or the more pop-friendly Combat Rock. You definitely don't acknowledge Cut the Crap's existence, though, and everything the members did after that is hazy. All you know is you like Joe Strummer's bark and wit, the way he just oozed rock ‘n' roll cool, but you never kept up with his "wilderness years" or his late period creative resurgence a few years before his 2002 death. If your wits are still about you, then you need to click the iTunes link above and buy The Hellcat Years.

For $24.99, Hellcat Records is offering up a digital box set containing the three best albums of Strummer's post-Clash career, which just so happen to have been recorded with his other band, the Mescaleros, plus a whole mess of rarities (more on those later for all you diehards. I still got some baptisms to initiate). The records will receive a physical release Sept. 25 [Note: I am thoroughly stoked to finally own Rock Art and the X-Ray Style on vinyl], but they can't compare to the price or immediate satisfaction of going digital. Yeah, I already own most of the rarities via singles and bootlegs, and the records aren't even remastered, and really, we need a true rarities box set a la Bruce Springsteen's Tracks, but got-dammit, this is Woody we're talking about here.

While Strummer never really slowed down artistically in the late '80s and '90s, he never quite put out a record as stirring as, say, London Calling, during that time. The best of that period, arguably the mostly instrumental Walker soundtrack, was more conducted by Strummer than it was written by him. That all changed with the Mescaleros' 1999 debut, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style. Previously, Strummer took his love of all music down many paths; here is where he fused it all together, combining folk, rock and electronic vibes with a handful of dub flourishes. Rock Art is also the cleanest-sounding of the Mescaleros records, perhaps owing to it originally being released by Mercury Records before Clash super fan Tim Armstrong swooped in and gave the band a better support network.

Rock Art is perhaps the most underrated of the Mescaleros albums, probably because it doesn't rock so much as groove. While there are some certified bangers ("Techno D-Day," "Tony Adams"), it's more defined by slightly spacey dancers like single "Yalla, Yalla." But it's still a damn fine listening experience, and the reissue adds in some choice B-sides like "Time and the Tide" and a surprisingly awesome dub remix of "Yalla, Yalla" that runs seven minutes.

By any measurement (production, lyrics, energy, genre mashing) follow-up Global A Go-Go is the better record, though. It only gets one rarity tacked on (a live version of "Bhindi Bhagee," which just seems anticlimactic after the lengthy Celtic folk of proper closer "Minstrel Boy"), but it still wins out by simply refining Rock Art's qualities. The folk is folksier on "Johnny Appleseed." The dub is slicker on the title track. The electronic textures are less pronounced, but they definitely add a splash of flavor. Strummer's lyrics bounce platitudes and rhymes ("If you're after getting the honey / Then you don't go killing all the bees" is up there with "He who fucks nuns will later join the Church" and "Ha / You think it's funny / Turning rebellion into money"). At 80 minutes or so, it's really a double album, and would have been a fitting end to the Mescaleros' legacy as the group's last proper studio effort.

But I still say Streetcore is the best of the three albums. While Strummer laid down a few tracks before his passing ("Coma Girl," "Get Down Moses"), the record is really a demo collection, pulling in acoustic songs from Strummer's vaults, such as "Long Shadow," which Strummer unsuccessfully wrote for Johnny Cash, along with "Redemption Song" and "Silver and Gold." The Mescaleros' material up to this point was pretty jammy, but they still worked in plenty of Clash songs live, creating an intense ebb/flow. Streetcore's most fully realized songs find a middle ground, keeping the world music approach but upping the oomph. It contains some of Strummer's best songs, and I do mean of all time. "Coma Girl," an ode to his daughters and Glastonbury, England, is a straight up catchy rocker. "Get Down Moses" lives up to its title. "Arms Aloft" is searing. In some ways it feels unfinished and even a little slight at just 10 tracks, but that makes it all the more poignant as the group's last record. Streetcore was put together after Strummer died, but it somehow still feels like the best representation of the Mescaleros.

Because of their slight diversity, any one of these albums makes an ideal starting point, and this cheap digital box set makes the choice that much easier. Also, the bevy of live rarities are exclusive to the digital version. My word. While these have been available elsewhere for years, there's still a great thrill in hearing the band take on Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come," the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" and Dandy Livingstone's "Rudy, A Message to You.". Plenty of Clash tunes get revisited as well, like "Rudy Can't Fail," "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais" and "Police on My Back." The best of the bunch, though, is three tracks that been circulating for a while on a bootleg called The Acton E.P..

The Acton E.P. was a recording of one the Mescaleros' last shows, Nov. 15, 2002, at a Fire Brigades Union benefit show…featuring a reunion with Clash guitarist/vocalist Mick Jones. Up first is a nine-and-a-half dubbed out take on "Bankrobber." As great as the original Clash version sounded, this is the best rendition. The listener feels every organ hit, every melodica shot. Drummer Luke Bullen holds down a nice beat throughout, letting the other members take turns soloing before finally the track up a notch at the end for a rocking finale. Then everybody rips through "White Riot" and "London's Burning" like it ain't no thing. Holy shit.

Strummer died too young. But with a set as heavy as this one, which was released to coincide with his birthday no less, his many accomplishments still resonate. I cannot be hyperbolic enough; buy this.