After leading the band Wig in Detroit, singer/guitarist Preston Cleveland renamed himself P.W. Long (aka P-Bone) and formed Mule with bassist Kevin Strickland (renamed Kevin Munro) and drummer Jim Kimball. (The rhythm section had previously played in Ann Arbor’s Laughing Hyenas, a band led by Cleveland’s older brother, John Brannon, who was in an early version of Mule as well. Got all that?) Together, they lumbered into rock’s ugly noise battleground, braiding a twisted Southern sensibility into Midwest aggression.
Mule contains an entertaining but uninformative comic book (The Story of Mule) and one acoustic old-timey ballad (“Now I Truly Understand”) that walks a rocky road between condescension and sincerity. Otherwise, the band unloads nasty, harsh tunelessness of a species near and dear to Steve Albini (engineering here as Lenard Johns). A passing whiff of Lynyrd Skynyrd in “Mississippi Breaks” and Long’s bogus backwoods hollerin’ on “Mama’s Reason to Cry” add an irrelevant accent to the proceedings; “What Every White Nigger Knows” contributes a bolt of arrogant stupidity.
Kimball left to form the Dennison-Kimball Trio, replaced by Daniel Jacob Wilson. Wisely dropping the ‘billy club and folk pretensions, Wrung turns Mule towards Nick Cave’s Birthday Party armageddon visions, using Long’s bellowing vocals and trebly guitar abrasion to drive the four songs (“The Rope and the Cuckold” among them) into a fierce sick headache.
As if following Cave’s progress from a distance, Mule tones it down — and even swings, after a fashion — in “The Beauteous” and “Nowhere’s Back” on If I Don’t Six; the latter song imports a very useful bit of organ. Most of the other seven tracks on the record (which begins enticingly enough with the orgasmic panting of guest Laura Borealis) also display a little extra thought, restraint and musicality, as well as a workable rapprochement with raw country desires (“Obion,” “A Hundred Years”). The album is still as hard and dangerous as rusty nails to a blind carpenter, but the careful hammering makes the music reach in deeper, with fewer splinters and busted thumbs.
After Mule, Preston Wright Long embarked on a solo career in the late ’90s with Reelfoot, which included drummer Mac McNeilly (ex-Jesus Lizard) and, at times, the late Dan Maister on bass and Boss Hog keyboardist Mark Boyce. With Reelfoot, Long abandoned much of the faux backwoods stomp of Mule in favor of a more laidback sound, allowing him to explore less caustic subject matter in his deeply personal lyrics. We Didn’t See You on Sunday is a hodgepodge of bittersweet lullabies about dying moms and dogs who could teach people how to live life to its fullest. Push Me Again is the funkiest record Long has ever played on.
Following the dissolution of Reelfoot, Long went on an extended musical hiatus, one that was occasionally interrupted by sporadic solo gigging. He directed a music video for Hank Williams III, contributed record reviews to magazines and did time as a New York nightclub and restaurant critic for London’s Crush Guide magazine. He spent time in New Orleans and LA before relocating to Fort Worth, TX.
Shellac curated the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England in 2002 and tugged Long out of semi-retirement, which led to his first proper solo record, Remembered. Lyrically, the songs are even bleaker than before: “If the river was whiskey, I’d crawl down and roll in” is fairly typical. Long did a tour of Europe with a drummer and a couple of shows in the States before disappearing into relative obscurity yet again.
The next two years of Long’s life were spent in the pursuit of such non-rock-related endeavors as continuing education and gainful employment. In 2005, he performed a couple of Mule and Reelfoot tunes by himself at Touch and Go’s 25th anniversary party and then recorded the vinyl-only God Bless the Drunkard’s Dog in Dallas. He formed Young James Long with drummer Taylor Young and guitarist Kirkland James and released an EP, You Ain’t Know the Man. The short blasts of swampy punk, not unlike a simpler Mule, were largely improvised on the spot.