Jimbo Mathus is a wild mix of over-the-top persona, Southern musical know-how, and obvious talent. Mathus' latest is Dark Night of the Soul on Fat Possum.
The title track and opener breaks the silence with a Floyd Cramer-esque piano riff that leads into a piano-confessional verse in the manner of Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young. Both artists are musically present throughout this album. Mathus' drawl is still intact, but there are moments where you wonder if he's consciously headed toward Springsteen territory or if that's what happens when he abandons genre study for a purer approach to the songs.
The musical scene around Fat Possum has moved from a purely archaeological enterprise, to a proper record label, to its current mix of those functions with a studio and a house band. Bassist Matt Patton is an Alabama native and perhaps the South's musical secret weapon. He's currently a member of Patterson Hood's Drive-by Truckers. The rest of the personnel come from Mathus' touring band, the Tri-State Coalition. Label owner Bruce Watson has built a scene around his Dial Back Sound studio. Where Dark Night of the Soul succeeds, it does so on the bones of the place and the people involved. That's pretty Mississippi when you get down to it. And it should come as no surprise from Oxford native Mathus.
The wider bounty of sounds comes later in the sequence. By the time he hits "Shine Like a Diamond," Mathus' stride is established and the album naturally meanders through the landscape of Southern, post-hippie-but-still-hippie music. The guitars bend with a little Bakersfield twang on "Writing Spider." The effect is similar to the Stones' "Dead Flowers," but Mathus' lyrics portray a soul with deeper problems and past troubles.
"Tallahatchie" takes place somewhere between Levon Helm and Leon Russell.
Mathus has led an itinerate life. On Dark Night of the Soul, we find him operating out of his home turf, at his own pace. He has studied all the genres and angles, but he seems to be writing from a pretty solid place. The album ends strongly with "Hawkeye Jackson" and closer "Butcher Bird" standing confidently at home in smart Southern rock.
Dark Night of the Soul
• Electraphonic Recording recently released three singles featuring Percy Wiggins with the Bo-Keys. The 45-rpm records and downloads find the Bo-Keys coalescing around Wiggins' vocals on the A-sides and taking instrumental flights on the B-sides.
The first single is "I Need More Than One Lifetime," an original track credited to Wiggins, drummer Howard Grimes, trumpeter Marc Franklin, and producer/bassist Scott Bomar. The groove is a McLemore Avenue stomper with heavy references to Eddie Floyd and the Staple Singers. The sounds are all in place, and the production is another example of Electraphonic's mission to preserve the analog recording process and the live feel of Memphis' R&B heyday. Wiggins' voice has the crackle and spark of the legends.
The B-side finds the band exploring Ennio Morricone's theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Again, Grimes leads the way with his steady, perfect timing. But the goods here are in the instruments. The organ is a perfectly dialed-in Hammond, the melody hung like a haloed star. The blending horns have harmonies in low fifths that growl below and rise to punctuate the main theme.
What separates this iteration of the Bo-Keys from the earlier group is the loss of Skip Pitts, the guitarist famous for the Shaft intro and other Stax and Hi masterpieces. There is no replacing Skip Pitts. But Joe Restivo steps into the vacuum and demonstrates his understanding of the subtleties of Memphis' guitar canon: Steve Cropper and Jimmie King. Restivo's playing is a bright spot on all of the sides.
The other singles include a version of James Carr's classic "Dark End of the Street," which features Wiggins' brother Spencer. It could use a couple more beats per minute. Side B is "Wind-up Monkey," an Albert King-like instrumental that again benefits from Restivo's Cropper studies. The last single, "The Writing on the Wall," leads off with Wiggins' best vocal take among the tracks. The B-side "I'm Still in Need" is another vocal track that hints at the Northern-soul sound of Wiggins' earlier recordings.
The set highlights Electraphonic's new focus on singles and its commitment to making vinyl records.
The Bo-Keys are hosting a release party at Bar DKDC on Friday, December 6th.