Monday, March 8, 2021

Jimbo Mathus & Andrew Bird - These 13

Now as a rule, I don’t devote a great deal of listening time to Americana.  A little bit, here and there, if the songs are good – and if it doesn’t lean too much towards pedal-steel-peddling country sentimentality.  But I’m always interested in what Southern roots muso Jimbo Mathus gets up to, so when I saw this collaboration with Andrew Bird was coming down the track, I decided to give it a whirl.
Both these guys are multi-instrumentalists, and both of them inclined towards hopping around and muddling together various genres.  So it’s intriguing to cop an earful of them sticking with a pretty simple vibe, and yet conjuring up buckets of nuance
 with just a handful of acoustic instruments.
The single released in advance of the album, ‘Sweet Oblivion’, was enough to entice me into a
Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird -  time travelling tour guides
pre-order.  A toe-tappingly engaging song about ageing, and perhaps mortality, it has a trotting rhythm laid out by little more than Mathus’s acoustic guitar,  and handclaps, while Bird strums at his fiddle for a while before sawing away in more decorative fashion.
Now, that’s pretty straight ahead.  But it’s remarkable how they evoke a rather different atmosphere on, say, ‘Beat Still My Heart’, with much the same components.  It opens with edgy guitar chords and mere suggestions of pulsing fiddle, before Bird chimes in with reverb-drenched vocals.  With its waltz-time, and Bird’s weeping fiddle, it evolves into a soundtrack – in my mind’s eye at least - for a couple dancing around an abandoned, cobwebbed ballroom.
“Old fashioned” is a fitting description, not as a criticism but to suggest the way in which this music reaches back down the years.  The cover art captures the mood, looking like illustrations from some nineteenth century religious tome, not so much sepia-toned as browned with age.  So when ‘Stonewall (1863)’ turns up, all solemn fiddle intro and subtle strums of guitar, it comes over like the kind of American hymn that you’d expect to hear in some rickety chapel populated by those prospectors in the Clint Eastwood movie Pale Rider – notwithstanding that the title points to Southern, Civil War references.  It comes with a subtle, hummed and moaned middle eight - but also with some irritating spoken prompts of the next line from Bird to the harmonising Mathus.
‘Red Velvet Rope’ may be less antique, but as Bird lowers the pitch of his voice a notch, it has a whiff of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, melancholy in its use of minimalist guitar and a scraping fiddle break as it contemplates the impact of celebrity.  I think.  ‘Dig Up The Hatchet’, meanwhile, has an ironic lyric backed with warm acoustic guitar picking and strumming as it follows a path that more folk than country.  (And speaking of lyrics, you’ve got to love the line from the opening ‘Poor Lost Souls’, “She’s just a lump of coal, but she should have been a diamond.”)
How should we describe ‘Jack O’Diamonds’?  Bluegrass?  Hillbilly?  Honestly, with Mathus’s guitar doing little more than bash out a percussive rhythm as he delivers a rough vocal and Bird joins in with bawled harmonies and some scratched out fiddle flourishes, they come across like the Soggy Bottom Boys.  Then next thing they’re getting into Hank Williams territory on the brief ‘Burn The Honky Tonk’.
Ultimately they stretch out on the closing ‘Three White Horses And A Golden Chain’.  There’s the barest picking of fiddle under an ever-so-familiar melody, until Mathus flutters in faintly on guitar and starts singing, and Bird adds keening harmonies.  Bird essays a mournful, elegant violin solo, and they get into some duetting of ghostly whistling with his fiddle en route to a solemn coda.
These 13 sure ain’t no rock music.  Here and there it brushes up against the blues.  But really it’s a time-travelling journey to an America seen through a glass darkly, with Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird your roots music navigators who don’t need a DeLorean.

These 13 is out now on Wegawam Music Co & Southern Broadcast.

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