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Published: 2014/02/15
by Brian Robbins

Jimbo Mathus & The Tri-State Coalition
Dark Night Of The Soul

Fat Possum Records

A little over a year ago Jimbo Mathus & The Tri-State Coalition laid White Buffalo upon us – a multi-faceted album that captured the soul of the :::HANK:::KEITH:::JIMI::: holy trinity. A time capsule-worthy collection of interplanetary honky-tonk at its best, White Buffalo was bursting with the vibe and essence of some classic American music, slathered with a custom mix of Delta bayou oils and unguents and powders. The result was a unique sound that was familiar at the same time – the sound of Mathus & The Coalition finding themselves.

It turns out White Buffalo was the gateway to the place inhabited by the brand-new Dark Night Of The Soul. One had to happen before the other, you see: natural steps in Mathus’ evolution as a songwriter – and the Coalition’s amazing ability to turn themselves into a jukebox of the human condition.

There are a number of factors contributing to the stick-to-your-ribs-and-brain goodness of Dark Night Of The Soul. First is the band’s move from Mathus’ Delta Recording Service in Como, MS (a funky old high-ceilinged grocery store converted to a studio) down the road to Fat Possum Records in Oxford. There might only be 35 miles between the two, but the difference is much, much bigger. Delta Recording allowed Mathus to do things his way while wearing as many hats as were needed; by immersing themselves in the Fat Possum vibe, Mathus and the Coalition are even freer to be – which works only because of the ear/heart/soul of head Possum Bruce Watson, a master at applying his studio’s hoodoo to the music created within its walls.

Secondly, Watson’s presence freed Eric “Roscoe” Ambel – producer/arranger/mad scientist guitarist on White Buffalo – to work the floor at Fat Possum with Mathus and the Coalition. Dark Night finds Ambel and Telecaster ninja Matt Pierce weaving their 6-strings like a psychedelicized version of Luther and Carl Perkins. (That would in effect make Mathus a day-glo’d Johnny Cash, which isn’t a reach at all, y’all.) Their guitar work covers the spectrum from warm, pure-toned twangweaves to gritty chuggaraunch to tattered speaker freakout – plus when they double-up on backing vocals they’re capable of everything from Mick ‘n’ Keith Sticky Fingers -era harmonies to Ozark Jubilee-style sweetness to leather-jacketed doo-wop.

Meanwhile, Coalition keyman Eric Carlton pulls off some magic of his own: his lush piano provides the yin to the wild-ass guitar yang on the title cut – including a welcome sunrise at the 2:38 mark after a fierce, dark guitar squall. On the other end of things, his dripping keys on “Butcher Bird” (co-penned with Mathus) provide a tension that lingers long after the song (and album) end. Drummer Ryan Rogers is paired up with bassist Matt Patton for Dark Night and, again, the combination is ideal for the setting. Patton, best known for his work with the Dexateens and the Drive-By Truckers, proves himself to be Fat Possum’s resident wompmaster, joining forces with Rogers like they’d been doing it for years. Dig the funky foundation they lay down for “Fire In The Canebrake”; the E Street majesty they bring to “Shine Like A Diamond”; the rawk-and-nothin’-but-the-rawk backbone that propels “Rock & Roll Trash”.

And then there’s Mathus hisself, who reaches a new level of songwriting and musicianship with Dark Night Of The Soul. Capitalizing on the gut feel and raw emotion of early live takes, Mathus offers performances that range from the soul-wringing title track to the sweaty grin of “Rock & Roll Trash”. He wrote the soulful “Casey Caught The Cannonball” in an attempt to set the record straight on the legendary engineer (who died a hero rather than a hot-rodder throttleman); he actually debuted the lovely “Shine Like A Diamond” as part of his vows to wife Jennifer on their wedding day; and the scary-ass “Medicine” deserves a shadowy spot on the shelf right between “Needle And The Damage Done” and “Sister Morphine”. “Hawkeye Jordan” rolls and tumbles like a Robert Hunter tune, Carlton’s piano tink-tinkling and rip-rippling while the guitars pull off a kick-ass imitation of a Dixieland horn band. And speaking of guitars, ol’ Jimbo’s no slouch hisself: he provides key acoustic and electric backing fabric for Pierce and Ambel to weave into throughout the album – and his solo on “White Angel” is equal parts “Dear Mr. Fantasy” soar and Hendrixian roar. (“White Angel” and the hot-buttered-biscuit-soul tune “Tallahatchie” were both collaborations with the late Robert Earl Reed.)

Adding to the mix are guest appearances by the amazing Kell Kellum on pedal steel (swinging from sheer joy on “Hawkeye Jordan” to junkie nightmare on “Medicine”); multi-instrumentalist Bronson Tew (who also engineered the album); and the lovely backing vocals of Gid and Sunny Stuckey. Some tunes are stripped to the bones and gristle; others are multi-textured and deeper than deep; but there’s not a wasted note, beat, or string bend to be found.

For sure, Jimbo Mathus and his bandmates wear their Southern heritage proudly – but the music they’ve created on Dark Night Of The Soul knows no borders, latitudes, or longitudes. If you have a heart and soul, they’re playing your song.

*****

Brian Robbins enjoys a hot buttered biscuit now and then over at www.brian-robbins.com

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