Andrew Bird first got together with Jimbo Mathus when Bird joined Mathus’ swing jazz revival band, the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Mathus comes from a family of Mississippi music makers where his guitar playing connected him to his community. Bird is a classically trained violinist from the suburbs of Chicago. Despite their disparate backgrounds, the two felt a close affinity to each other. They formed a mutual admiration society, even though Bird later left the band to pursue his own visions. Both men are idiosyncratic players whose music takes them down different rabbit holes in search of a lost chord or something hidden just behind the notes that propel them onward.
The two have joined together again after a prolonged absence. The baker’s dozen tunes on These 13 bear little resemblance to their past collaborations as part of the Zippers. The music here is more primitive and rustic. The songs sound like they were found in the bottom of a box in the old woodshed or a gospel church on Sunday morning. The two co-wrote the material using cell phones and text messaging, yet the material suggests a spaciousness as if the tracks grew out of the soil into the fresh air and sunshine with the wind blowing their leaves atwitter.
Several of the tracks seem to evoke older, classic American folk or country songs brought forward with a twist. “Encircle My Love” recalls Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway” before heading to a more peaceful resolution where being far from home allows one to wallow in the sweetness of memory. “Jack O’ Diamonds” tells the timeless story of a rambling gambler who will never be able to settle down. And even the instrumental “Bright Sunny South” reminds one of bucolic reveries of the mythic past that never existed except in the songs from the antebellum era.
When the two players really start getting down on cuts like “Sweet Oblivion” and “Three Horses and a Golden Chain”, it’s easy to forget it’s just two of them making all that noise. Producer Mike Viola does a great job filling the frame with music but still allowing the sound to breathe. There is a sense of internal discipline. Both players let loose yet share an awareness of each other’s needs to be expressive. That allows the melodies to build atop each other. The songs don’t advance so much as find a stasis where both players hit a groove.
The rustic elements of these 13 tracks stand out the most. There’s something distinctively old-fashioned about the sound of a guitar and fiddle with two human voices bellowing about honky-tonks, witches, the Civil War events, and such. Mathus and Bird’s songs sound like they could have been recorded more than 100 years ago or just yesterday. When the concerns are more contemporary, such as the homeless on the streets of Los Angeles on “Poor Lost Souls”, the musical accompaniment connects the current situation to what has always been. Poverty and misery are nothing new, although perhaps the two men suggest our blindness to each other’s travails has become more pronounced by bringing it into the present.