The Mumlers take their name from a 19th-century man who claimed he could photograph spirits. A jewel engraver by trade, William H. Mumler made a second career out of convincing the bereaved, many of them relatives of American Civil War dead, that the ghostly figures imprinted onto his portraits represented the dearly departed.
So probably the least contentious point of comparison between the California sextet and its namesake is that the Mumlers’ Don’t Throw Me Away is also haunted by ghosts. From the intrusive conga line that kicks off the album’s opener, “Raise the Blinds”, to the dissonant, skeleton-jig piano ditty that slams the door shut on the track’s dreamy choral bridge, I feel thoroughly spooked. The crisp, direct start to the album verges on aggressive but never affronts the listener with its slithering flutes and an arrangement of horns that swell like mercury in a thermometer. It’s total dirge, with hints of both klezmer and New Orleans jazz, and swiftly but smoothly sinks us into an eerie, evocative fugue.
Will Sprott’s liquor-drenched vocals, speaking of spirits, center the album’s narrative drive on a particular character and voice — that of a crinkly-eyed, perhaps irredeemable schmuck you might see stumbling drunk down the French Quarter at three in the morning. “I went down to St. James St. / To buy eight bottles of beer”, Sprott sings. “I heard the sounds of sirens singing / And church bells ringing in my ears”. His plea, articulated by the title of the album and its final track, remains mostly unspoken throughout, cloaked in this apologetic imagery of guilt and ruin. Even when the Mumlers veer toward the joyous — the clearest example is “Tangled Up With You”, a strutting, celebratory ode to love-struck dependency that has much the same emotional undercurrent of dread as the Sicilian wedding scene in The Godfather — you hear traces of a hangover not long gone enough, and the faint sounds of cracks forming in the sentiment’s foundation.
All of this, as other reviewers have noted, falls squarely into Tom Waits/Leonard Cohen musical territory, and from a craft standpoint Don’t Throw Me Away is a gem with as much luster as its influences. It abounds with texture, atmosphere, and all sorts of genre-requisite flourishes: the bluesy, hard-luck harmonica; the David Lynch-style, surf-rock tremolo guitar; the rumbling, slow bass. But in spite of all this artistry — and equally, because of it — these touches often seem very much affected. Too easy and sincere in their expression to say “contrived”, but still affected. Like the whole thing were performed in a kind of falsetto. The electric organ-driven “Coffin Factory”, while in many ways the album’s centerpiece, has a removed, almost documentary feel: “I’m tired of working in a coffin factory / I want my boss to give my life back to me / My paycheck’s not big enough to wipe my tears.” It’s a gorgeous metaphor, but more abstract than earnest. Telling us a story about working-class suffering, but communicating only part of the suffering itself.
Still, it’s a catchy tune. And past the halfway mark, the album manages to shed some of its affectedness, particularly on pared-down tracks like “Sunken City”, which greets the listener with a dream-poppy, comfortably modern sound, as well as the unpretentiously folksy “Golden Arm & Black Hand”. The album subsequently juts to the opposite extreme with the straight-up saloon vaudeville of “Fugitive & Vagabond”. For a moment it feels like a return to the put-on, theatrical remove of “Coffin Factory”, but then the Mumlers surprise us at 1:51 with 20 seconds of drawn-out, mournful harmonica with backing high notes on the piano that together, as though rolling back the ceiling of a crowded room, expose us to depth of feeling bordering on the cosmic. And then back to the saloon we go — but that’s just the way it goes, isn’t it?
Don’t Throw Me Away ends with the eponymous track, perhaps the prettiest on the album, Sprott channeling Van Morrison, and this time it feels completely real. Sentiments no doubt shared by the poor souls the original William Mumler, in all likelihood, hoaxed… but if by this point we don’t quite trust that discolored shape on the photograph, maybe our reaction to the illusion is grounds enough for belief — and reason enough not to discard it.