Apr 05, 2021
By Ben Jardine
Former Squirrel Nut Zippers collaborators, Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird, reunite again for These 13—a deep dive into essential southern folk and gospel. These 13 is the first full-length work the two have worked on since 2000’s Bedlam Ballroom, and it acts as an immediate reentry into their friendship.
The two met in 1994, at a music festival in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Bird was playing “medieval fiddle” in a folk group, and saw Mathus with his swing band, Squirrel Nut Zippers. Mathus invited Bird to join him on a few session recordings, and that kick-started a friendship that would last 25 years, and counting.
Like any good musical partnership, Mathus and Bird truly do compliment each other. Mathus’ voice is rich, his lyrics slotting right in with the Southern tradition; Bird’s is steeped in longing and vibrato, echoing American popular music and jazz.
The record is simple, peeled back—a real snapshot of a musical era that rarely gets the spotlight these days. The album’s 13 tracks take the listener on a Where Art Thou? tour of folk music. Upon first listen, the tracks sound as if they were snatched from the days of intimate radio recordings: just the voices of Mathus and Bird, their guitar and fiddle, construct a disarmingly simple tracklist.
It’s clear that the pair sought this simplicity, very early on. “Encircle My Love” is a pastoral song of devotion, played sparse over a handful of chords and an eventual fiddle solo. “Dig Up the Hatchet” features classic Bird lyrics, but if he was writing a hundred years ago. “Burn the Honky Tonk” is a haunting spiritual, while “Three White Horses” benefits from reverb and space in a way that many folk songs of old never saw. The album’s lead single “Sweet Oblivion,” with its thumping rhythm and lyrics depicting genealogy, is the closest to a “modern” take on folk.
These 13 should appeal to a large audience, but it’s very different to some of Bird’s more mainstream work. Mathus and Bird expertly capture the folk tradition, and their respective skills and idiosyncrasies really find purchase in these beautiful, minimal tracks. (www.therealjimbomathus.com, www.andrewbird.net)
Author rating: 7.5/10
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