"Life is a debt that must someday be paid," Mekons guitarist and ringleader Jon Langford sings on "Last Night on Earth" from the band's 2000 release, Journey to the End of the Night. The song has a jaunty bounce as it casually catalogues social ills before the chorus chimes, "They can't hurt you now/Last night on Earth." It's a strangely triumphant song at the end of an elegiac album. "Journey is about traveling through night into daybreak, that sort of darkness before the dawn," vocalist Sally Timms says.

Since forming in 1977 as a band that questioned punk as it made it, the Mekons have created a body of song that funhouse-mirrors rock and society at large, placing the band on the edge as pranksters, contrarians, and committed socialists. In the mid-'80s, the Mekons began exploring country music, bringing leftist populism toe-to-toe with pugilism for a bastard blend that delighted listeners. Onstage, the Mekons are a traveling road show of wisecracking, friendly drunken bandits. Timms, Langford, and Greenhalgh are all sharp-witted, and their between-song banter gives the shows a jolt of country-punk vaudeville. The angst is tempered with humor. The social message isn't delivered in bombastic anthems but in clever asides and corrosive bon mots.

The Mekons have four different vocalists: Timms, Langford, Tom Greenhalgh, and Rico Bell. The sprawling, shifting line-up is part of the band's charm. "There are so bloody many of us," Timms says, laughing. "The tour is an excuse to get us all together to record the new album." The new album the Mekons will record remains open to possibilities. "It's going to be a gospel album. Jon's been listening to a lot of the Alan Lomax recordings," Timms says. The thought of the Mekons tackling field-recorded spirituals with skewed harmonies a la The Watson Family is not only intriguing but, as the band goes, a logical evolution, taking it back to pre-rock-and-roll America in a new millennium.