PHOTO BY REUBEN COX
Jimbo Mathus, left, and Andrew Bird rain heaviness upon Oregon State University's American Strings visit with Bob Santelli at 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 12. See info box below for ticket details.
Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird speak, perform in OSU virtual series
C O R Y F R Y E
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WHAT: OSU American Strings series discussion with and performance by Andrew Bird and Jimbo Mathus, hosted by Bob Santelli, the university’s Director of Popular Music and Performance
WHEN: 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 12
WHERE: To register and receive a Zoom attendance link, visit https://beav.es/3wp.
Seems strange, in retrospect, that Andrew Bird and Jimbo Mathus haven't recorded as a duo till now. Their creative relationship dates back to 1996, when Bird, already a fiddle/violin master fresh outta Northwestern University, joined Mathus and his fellow Squirrel Nut Zippers to jaunt sinister through the short-lived swing revival ("Hell" a commercial zenith) — an odd combo on paper, i.e., Suzuki-schooled roots harmonizing with pre-rock post-grunge hellcat flair, but the results were glorious. Mathus in turn surfaced in Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire.
These 13 (Thirty Tigers, March 2021) revels in refreshing simplicity, from the handmade Jared Spears art that adorns its cover (two chairs in sepia tones positioned between an angel at a harp) to the sounds under its sleeve. Hell, even the title's semi-easy, signifying the 13 cuts within, or, perchance, an era-appropriate 1931 Faulkner collection; lotta Mississippi 'round these parts.
Only three people appear on the album (sharing a single microphone), with one offering vocals on a single cut — but what a third she is: Susanna Hoffs, buttering the exquisite “Bell Witch” as the coveted “sweet voice.” Otherwise, only the duo reigns, accompanied by fiddle and guitar at the fore, establishing a live, fluid atmosphere unembellished by layered trickery (save the final track, with its sinewy, mournful orchestra), giving both artists nowhere to hide lyrically or sonically. This is an album whose details are meant to be savored on every level.
The material seems preoccupied with spirits to save or escort to the hereafter, beginning with “Poor Lost Souls,” detailing the plight of L.A.’s homeless populations unmoored in a hardened city of plenty. Its denizens are repeatedly eulogized as lumps of coal meant for shinier outcomes. Bathed in a waltz representing the comfort of dance and a lasting relationship, “Encircle My Love” holds true to a final embrace in the here, now, and later — that "Sweet Oblivion" of acoustic prickles and sawing rosin jive. “Stonewall (1863)” sends its war dead home in a comforting hymn, followed by “Bright Sunny South,” an accordion-sigh afterword as bereaved survivors leave the church.
“Beat Still My Heart” wears its lonesome weight with pathos; vocals bounce in soft emptiness. Lyrics shudder over hollow bravado: “I’m alone, but I’m free,” Bird wails against his high, weeping telltale violin (such instruments cannot lie), loudly contradicting its feigned strength. “Red Velvet Rope” and “Burn the Honky Tonk” are both drenched in the melancholia of a ’50s country weeper, though the latter, with its woe-rattled threats, could culminate in harder tragedy. The weirdly amusing “Dig Up the Hatchet” is the loveliest song you’ll hear about deliberately starting shit (“Exhume these memories from the cold ground”). Peacekeeping’s for diplomatic relations, not romantic entanglements, anyhow.
Everything culminates in the big 'un: “Three White Horses and a Golden Chain,” revisiting imagery, tones, and lyrics from Bird’s Hands of Glory (2012), a sorrowful dirge for the doomed, and extending it past the 6-minute mark with a whistling bridge to summon spectral figures and a sepulchral orchestra — the album’s sole Moment, with snaking strings in layers, calling down a massive farewell. For an album bearing such an ordinary title, These 13 sticks eternally to rattled bones.