JImbo Mathus has a new album, out April 5, that, like everything he does, is surprising in the best sort of way. It is called Incinerator and except for the overdubs it was recorded in 2 days at Dial Back studio in Water Valley, Mississippi. In order to fully concentrate on the words and music, this time Mathus turned production over to the studio owners, Bronson Tew and Drive-By Truckers bassist Matt Patton. He also elected to play the piano rather than guitar, leaving the guitars to Patton and Tew as well. Andrew Bird pf The Squirrel Nut Zippers provided the violin and Kevin Russell added background vocals.
While there is still mysticism and imagery in this album, there is also more traditional music. In fact, when I first heard the first track, “You Are Like a Song,“ I thought Jimbo had reached back and found an obscure bluegrass song to record. It was a surprise to discover that he wrote it. It definitely uses gospel and bluegrass very effectively, and Mathus’ voice is perfect with its gravelly texture.
The title track “Incinerator” is dark and heavy, with apocalyptic imagery that Mathus said when premiering the song in Glide magazine actually harks back to a dream he had about his days as a teen working on barges on the Mississippi. He would see the flames of the refineries burning off in the distance and think of the spirits of the dead. For a man who once told me he ha always had visions, this becomes remnants and ribbons of prophecy.
Mathus turns to a far more personal subject for “Really Hurt Someone,” a song so filled with anguish and regret that it is almost painful to hear. As a poet does, he exposes even his dark emotions to feed his muse. Then, he gives us the respite of the western swing of “South of Laredo,” followed by the haunting “Been Unravelling” with its very effective piano against the choral-sounding echoes.
“Alligator Fish” is psychedelic swamp music, a crazed take on Southern folk tales that lets Mathus chant the lyrics over howling guitars provided by producers Patterson and Tew. “Jack Told The Devil All Right” comes from that same rich cache of storytelling in the Deep South, and finds Mathus employing the country rock style and some similar imagery to Charlie Daniels to tell a much more open-ended story.
“Sunk a Little Loa” leads into another persona for Mathus to try on, in what might be called psychedelic lounge music. It seems to find us in some sleazy little piano bar with Jimbo seated at the piano singing about words that make no sense, accompanied by female backup singers and, one imagines, swirling lights.
“Sunken Road” continues to mix genres, falling somewhere between a road song and Hendrix, with an unmistakable chord progression that recalls “Angel.” Lily Hyatt adds a lovely vocal on the second verse of this song which one gradually realizes is about dead ends and approaching death. It is followed by the mellow, melancholy “Never Know Til It’s Gone.”
The album ends with a straight-forward version of an old A.P. Carter song, “Give Me The Roses,” about how important it is to show love while a person is still alive and not after they have died. This seems to be the life lesson that runs through this album most strongly. The song itself shows that Mathus could shine as a bluegrass or gospel singer as he could as a rock star. Mathus can, in fact, shine in any genre he chooses, and as strong as a solo artist or with the Squirrel Nut Zippers. He is an outstanding product of the Delta his music and his soul spring from and this is very obvious on Incinerator.