The Squirrel Nut Zippers caught a lot of flack for their neo-Dixieland/jump-blues/swing stylings. Perhaps it was a problem of “swing revival” street cred; critics charged that they were too young, too academic, or too unskilled on their instruments. That didn’t stop the band from selling bushels of records, or the band members from ultimately using that success to pursue their own interests.
James Mathus, a cofounder of the group with wife Katharine Whalen, was arguably overshadowed by Whalen’s Billie Holiday-like vocals, and by the quirky songwriting prowess of bandmate Tom Maxwell. Maxwell’s hits like “Put a Lid on It” and the gleefully macabre “Hell” did much to solidify the Zippers’ image in a lot of minds.
Since then, though, Mathus has done a good job of showing that he’s no revivalist one-trick-pony. Despite a penchant for renaming himself (trying monikers like Jim, James, Jax, and even Jimbo “Hambone” Mathus on for size), he’s shown great focus in his pursuits of Americana styles. His first solo record, Play Songs for Rosetta, was a logical extension of the Zippers that explored various Dixieland and southern jazz stylings. In addition, proceeds went to benefit Rosetta Patton, the daughter of blues legend Charlie Patton (she’d been Mathus’s nanny when he was a lad). She receives no money from the sales of her father’s records, and Mathus’s album helped her substantially. It not only showed that he had a legitimate reason for playing this music, but also that his heart was in the right place.
Fresh off of playing rhythm guitar on Buddy Guy’s Sweet Tea, Mathus uses National Antiseptic to wade hip-deep into the Delta Blues and swamp-boogie that figures like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough shaped from the heat and humidity of Mississippi juke-joints. Aiding him in his quest are Luther and Cody Dickinson (2/3 of the North Mississippi Allstars), energetic revivalists themselves. The Dickinsons are the sons of Memphis producer Jim Dickinson and Mathus is himself Mississippi-bred, so the pedigree’s definitely there. Consequently, the disc has a ton of muscle, and fans of Mathus’s early, less greasy work might be disappointed. If you’re in the mood for some growling, slinky blues, though, much of National Antiseptic will hit the spot.
Songs like “Take a Ride”, “Snake Drive”, and “Drinkin’ Antiseptic” are the most immediately striking. They also show the most evidence of the trademark Allstars blues groove. Full of youthful energy, Matthus and the Dickinsons wallow in slide guitar, drums that sound like they’re being pounded with hamhocks, and sly juke-joint murmur. The vintage ZZ Top shuffle of “Spare Change” and the low-down groaning blues of “Stranger” refine the sound even more. These guys must have been hearing old blues 78s in the womb, because it’s obviously written into their DNA.
It’s not all roadhouse rumblings, though, and Matthus’s nods to other styles initially feel less successful, if only because they lack the primal drive of the disc’s uptempo numbers. “Rock of Ages”, though, is a nice mixture of spiritual lament, saloon atmosphere, and doo-wop. “Nightingale” has the lo-fi feel of a bedroom late at night, and “Issaqueena St. Shuffle” cavorts pretty nicely. “Shake it and Break It” possesses an off-kilter feel, as if Mungo Jerry of “In the Summertime” fame were let loose in a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Naysayers of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and their progeny may still find fault in National Antiseptic, maybe on the pretense that a bunch of young white kids can’t possibly evoke a sweaty Mississippi bar. Mathus and the Dickinson brothers, though, show that youthful energy and a sincere love for a style can go a long way. They may still need a lot of miles and just as many years to sit beside their idols, but ascension doesn’t really seem to be their goal. As much as anything else, they’re just having a blast, and it comes through in the music.