Review: On new album, Jimbo Mathus puts genre labels into the 'Incinerator'


Rating: 8.5/10

Jimbo Mathus doesn't care a thing about your artificial genre labels. As leader of Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mathus was at the forefront of the '90s swing revival. As a touring guitarist for Buddy Guy, he learned at the feet of blues royalty. As a solo artist, he's touched on everything from swamp boogie to Americana to Southern rock, to psychedelic. That wide range of interests comes together on Mathus' new album Incinerator, out Apr. 5 on Big Legal Mess. The album's 11 song make no pretense at cohesiveness, bouncing from style to style easily, with Mathus' vocal work providing the common thread.

For Incinerator, Mathus decided to let his inspiration be his guide. To ensure he didn't spend too much time refining his songs, everything but overdubs for all 11 songs were recorded in a whirlwind two days at Mississippi's Dial Back Sound, with producers Bronson Tew and Drive-By Truckers bassist Matt Patton at the helm. An accomplished producer himself, Mathus decided to let others have control of his production this time so he could focus solely on the music.

Highlighting the album is the swampy “Alligator Fish.” With lyrics that combine the nonsensical surrealism of John Prine with the vivid imagery of Tom Waits, the psychedelic New Orleans tune is underscored by a spaced out guitar lick and a vocal delivery from Mathus that is pure Dr. John juju. This song alone is worth about 5 of the album's 8 points in my ratings and is the one song that I most look forward to hearing interpreted live.

Another rocker is the album's title track, a slow burning dirge with a clashing guitar run. Inspired by Mathus' time working as a deckhand on barges in Louisiana. He watched the flare stacks from the refineries they passed and had a vision of the energy of the dead being released like burn-off. The result, an apocalyptic song that alludes to acadian rhythms, blood feuds, and river beds, before ending with a guitar run that borders on metal in its ferocity.

Serving as a counterpoint to those rockers is the breezy “You Are Like a Song.” Songwriters have always taken inspiration from the people in their lives and “You Are Like a Song” is a nod to the immortality that transformation into music provides, whether it be fame or infamy. Anchored by an acoustic guitar and piano, it's lifted by the eight-part chiming in like a barroom sing-along.

Another acoustic gem is “Jack Told the Devil.” A talking blues roll on the verses before a drawled Mississippi ramble of a chorus, it's a loose retelling of the tale of Stingy Jack, who played a number of tricks on Satan. It's one of the more fun songs on the album, a silly little fairy tale with an amiable narrator and a catchy reel.

Of course, if you've traveled the roads as much as Jimbo Mathus, you're bound to make some friends along the way and, in addition to Patton and Tew, he also brought three other roots music pals to contribute to the album. Young Americana artist Lilly Hiatt provides her sweet vocals to one verse on the trucker ballad turned transcendental meditation “Sunken Road.” Violinist Andrew Bird provides instrumental weight throughout. And finally, Texas troubadour Kevin Russell of Shinyribs, as well as his backing vocalists The ShinySoulSisters, provide the appropriate drawl and harmony on the Western swinger “South of Laredo.”

Not content to go that far afield in his genre explorations, Mathus has one last surprise to close the album; an almost rigidly faithful interpretation of The Carter Family's classic “Give Me The Roses (While I Live).” It's like Mathus decided to put a bow on the whole project with the most classic country song he could find. It works, and it's a great cleanser before restarting the album and diving right back into the whiplash genre shifts that Incinerator revels in.

While Mathus currently doesn't have any shows supporting Incinerator yet, he will be on tour this Spring with Squirrel Nut Zippers. You can find a full slate of their tour dates here.