- Jimbo Mathus & The Tri-State Coalition
- White Buffalo
Fat Possum Records
In 2011, I wrote a review of Jimbo Mathus’ Confederate Buddha album, referring to the music on it as “rooted deeply in Mathus’ beloved Mississippi Hill Country, but the messages contained within the dozen tracks came from – and reach out to – some place far, far away.” My feelings about Confederate Buddha still stand – it’s a hell of a piece of work. But let me tell you something right now, folks: I don’t know what sort of gris-gris Mathus and his Tri-State Coalition (bassist Ryan Rogers, drummer Terrence Bishop, keyboardist Eric Carlton, and guitarist Matt Pierce) called upon during the recording of White Buffalo, but they have conjured up some mighty, mighty fine tunes.
You don’t have to wait for the magic to take hold: Mathus’ sweet mandolin ushers in “In The Garden” while Jimbo doles out some philosophy and advice – rolled in flour and pan-fried to a golden brown by the Coalition, who fall in behind him midway through the first verse. Carlton’s accordion infuses the tune with a Delta vibe; Bishop and Rogers keep the beat simmering somewhere between the Scottish Highlands and a Tibetan mountaintop; Pierce pilots his Telecaster through some amazing twists and turns; and through it all, Mathus’ brave little mando carries the torch that lights the song’s soul. The White Buffalo is off and running.
The best way to get to the core of what this album is all about is to dive right into the middle of the beast: the amazingly eclectic-yet-perfectly-united trifecta of “White Buffalo”, “Hatchie Bottoms”, and “Fake Hex”. The title tune comes roaring out of the speakers with enough force to make you duck your head – all rolling and a’tumbling drums and ga-wooping bass and wailing guitars and flashes of wild-ass voodoo funk ::: JIMI! ::: but there’s not a Cuban heel nor bit of tie-dye in sight; this is flannel-shirted and raggedy-blue-jeaned get-down-to-it psychedelia – as real as the button missing on that there thermal t-shirt, my friend. No sooner has the wild-colored dust and vapors and cymbal sizzles from “White Buffalo” settled than a gently-strummed acoustic guitar wraps its loving arms around you and takes you to “Hatchie Bottoms”. “In 20 and 10 I went back home again to the funeral of my Uncle Bobby …” sings Jimbo – and by the time the rest of the band has fallen into step, you are headed home as well, feeling every ounce of sweet and mournful ache ::: HANK! ::: that Jimbo and the boys lay on you. There’s hardly enough time to wipe your eyes before “Fake Hex” takes off, gee-tars all snapping and biting and chasing their tails in total Some Girls -era Stones glory ::: KEITH! ::: and it’s a hell of a mess Jimbo’s singing about (“Ever since I knew ya, you ain’t brought me nuthin’ but heartache”) but when they go roaring off into the wham/crash/wail of the bridge at 1:37, you’re helpless to do a thing except dance, dance, dance.
And that’s when you realize that what these crazy/talented bastards have managed to pull off is capturing the spirit of some sort of ::: JIMI! ::: HANK! ::: KEITH! ::: HOLY ROCK ‘N’ ROLL TRINITY – not by doing killer impressions or relying on plastic studio-created ambience … no, no, no. What Mathus and the Coalition have done is slow-boiled rock ‘n’ roll right down to its syrupy goodness, and then played it with every ounce of their collective beings – in a big ol’ room with big ol’ mics and a big ol’ vibe.
Sun Studios had it. Big Pink had it. The Basement Tapes and Motel Shot had it. And White Buffalo has it – a function of Mathus’ Delta Recording Service in Como, MS (an old high-ceilinged grocery store converted to a studio – that still shares a building with the local post office); a function of producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel’s total grasp of who these players are and what they want to do; and a function of the players themselves knowing who they are and what they want to do.
Settling into White Buffalo is like hanging out in a cool old house where every chair is comfy; it’s chock full of moments to burrow into. Mathus’ and Matt Pierce’s harmonized guitar spirals on “Tennessee Walker Mare” are the sweetest you’ve heard since Dickey and Duane made the sun shine on “Blue Sky” while “Run Devil Run” will make the hair stand up your arms and have you brushing swamp vines out of your face that aren’t there.
“(I Wanna Be Your) Satellite” is a neat mix of crunch and velvet – a garage with a Wall Of Sound in the back. The boys lay down passages of cool doo-wop between the growled/yelped sing-‘em-like-you-feel-‘em verses. Eric Carlton’s cheesy-toned organ is the perfect glue; Ryan Rogers’ bass repeatedly builds the tune’s tension up and keeps things on edge; and pay attention to the start-stop-start drum roll that Terrence Bishop goes into at the 1:50 mark – one of the coolest bits of just-right-and-no-more rock rhythm laid down since Mickey Waller’s roll between the first and second verses of Every Picture Tells A Story. (Don’t take my word for it – go look it up.)
“Poor Lost Souls” is another tune whose words are of today, but whose soul comes straight out of an old AM radio speaker with Hank Williams doing the testifying for Mother’s Best Flour: “She’s just a lump of coal/but she could have been a diamond.” (Pierce tickles and prods his Tele into everything from Bakersfield ticky-tick rhythms to heartbreaker pedal steel-ish twang.) “Self?” is a study in introspection, honesty, and crunchy guitars; “Useless Heart” is more of the same – only different. Jay Bennett would’ve loved it.
Interplanetary honky tonk? Born-in-the-bone Americana? Yes and yes – and a few dozen other descriptions would fit, as well. It matters not what you call it, though – Jimbo Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition are playing your song.
Too early to start this year’s “Best Of” list? Nope. And White Buffalo is an easy pick.
Brian Robbins hangs his flannel shirt and raggedy blue jeans on a peg at www.brian-robbins.com