Photo by Scott Preston
Jimbo Mathus & The Tri-State Coalition
July 7, 2014
MOTR Pub, 1345 Main St, Cincinnati, OH
21+, 10pm, Free
Few studio albums have had a birth process like Jimbo Mathus’ new release, Dark Night of the Soul. To create his ninth album, the singer-songwriter spent nearly a year going to Dial Back Sound Studio, near his home in Taylor, Mississippi, to work on new tunes. Dial Back Sound, however, isn’t just any conveniently located studio, but one operated by Fat Possum Records’ Bruce Watson, who offered Mathus this extended opportunity to create the follow-up to his highly-regarded Fat Possum debut White Buffalo.
Like having a regular gig at a neighborhood bar, Mathus would drop by the studio every couple of weeks and hash out song ideas with engineer/instrumentalist Bronson Tew. Mathus ended up with around 40 songs and Watson heard them all. “He acted as my editor,” Mathus explains. “I really trust him. He would come in and say, ‘I like this or could we change a little of that?’”
Mathus enjoyed the casual, low-pressure studio environment but also felt challenged to bring new material to the table every week. “I would pull out scraps of paper from my wallet that normally I would dump in the trash and those would be the ones that Bruce liked.” The ones Watson would gravitate to be the darker songs — the ones, Mathus confides, he would typically keep private. “So collaboratively,” he says, “we brought them to life.” This process resulted in his most personal and hardest rocking album to date. While on earlier releases, the Mississippi-bred Mathus tended to showcase his encyclopedic facility with Southern roots music, this time, however, he really wanted to play his songs unselfconsciously — “letting them just fall off the bone.”
This emphasis on “more ultra chrome and less sepia tones,” as Mathus calls it, arrives on the title track that opens the album. Fiery electric guitars match the artist’s emotionally wrenching vocals as he pleads to be taken to his “sweet solution.” A similar search for salvation fuels the impassioned soul-rocker “White Angel,” while a more rollicking spirit imbues the ’70s Southern rock-flavored “Rock and Roll,” where the piano is pounded as hard as the guitars. “Shine Like a Diamond,” a love ode to Mathus’ wife Jennifer, sparkles like an old Van Morrison-style gem, complete with some “sha-la-la” near the end.
Dark Night grows funkier in its second half with tracks like “Fire in the Canebrake” and “Casey Caught the Cannonball.” Mathus’ take on the Casey Jones legend (which he wrote from facts he got off of a roadside marker) conjures up memories of The Band, as does another Dixie-based tale, “Hawkeye Jordan.” The album ends in a rather dark place with the closing tracks: the junkie lament “Medicine” and eerie eulogy “Butcher Bird.”
On most of Dark Night’s tracks, Mathus’ acoustic guitar is surrounded by the electric guitar played by his longtime sideman Matt Pierce and pal Eric “Roscoe” Ambel. (Ambel produced White Buffalo but on Dark Nighthe focuses exclusively on his righteous guitar playing.) The album’s raw, rock sound arose from the fact that most of the tracks were recorded live in the studio with Mathus’ band, the Tri-State Coalition, which he found “very liberating way of doing it.” Mathus feels very in synch with his bandmates (keyboardist Eric Carlton, drummer Ryan Rogers, guitarist Pierce and guest bassist and Drive By Trucker Matt Patton) since they have played together now for several years. “The intensity you’re hearing on this album,” he proclaims, “is the spirit of a band that is putting its shit on the line.”