I was (am) a huge Squirrel Nut Zippers fan. They were the vanguards of the new swing movement in the mid-nineties but were unfairly overshadowed by flashier acts like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Brian Setzer, both good in their own rights, but nothing like the 1920s sounds of SNZ. After their swan song, 2000’s Bedlam Ballroom, I became fascinated with the solo efforts of their bandleader, James Mathus.
On January 25, 2005, Jimbo Mathus released Knockdown South, a kick-ass mish-mash of styles and influence that could work as a résumé for the guitarist. His playing and writing are showcased throughout the album, proving him a master of styles and interpretation. Opener “Crazy Bout You” is a mid-tempo rocker, Delta blues by way of 1968 London. This segues into the excellent “Hypmotized” [sic], a mid-seventies disco soul groove complete with Latin percussion and wah-wah pedal. “Let Me Be Your Rocker” is a blues/soul hybrid that hits all the right notes while “Boogie Music” is a Sly-funk wonderland sure to get shoes on the dancefloor.
Equally as impressive as Mathus’s ability to write, arrange, and play in just about any given style is his ability to match his vocals to what he’s playing. While the nostalgia laced “Skateland Baby” is a Mellencamp-esque piece of heartland Americana with singing to match, the bluesy “Mule Plow Line” is a Hendrix-like riff-laden rocker where a virgin listener might be forgiven for mistaking the vocalist’s ethnicity.
The second half of the album kicks off with “Loose Diamonds,” a track that I could easily imagine as a Tom Waits number (Jimbo even attempts to get some gravel in his voice at a couple points on this track) with some understated horns and a soulful second act. “Be That Way” brings to mind The Yardbirds before “State Line Women” kicks in with some SRV-like stylings.
“Rolling Like A Log” is a hard rollicking southern rocker featuring a super groovy Wurlitzer. The longest track on the record, it transforms into a free-for-all jam session in the final third and all of the musicians are in top form here. As the denouement, “Loving Arms” is a slide-guitar country song that wouldn’t be out of place on any latter day Nick Lowe record, and “Asked My Captain” is a quiet solo acoustic blues number.
It seems criminal to me that no one has heard this record, that James Mathus isn’t a bigger name. He’s a musical historian who is able to tap into different styles while creating music that is purely his own. You can access the entire record here and check it out for yourself. After reading my recap, you should know not to go into it expecting a Squirrel Nut Zippers type swing extravaganza, an expectation I had a hard time shaking when I started listening to Mathus’s solo work, but it is every bit as singular and exceptional.