Old friends collaborate to great effect and produce a high-class slice of folk-based americana.
It is the mid-90s. Swing jazz revival band Squirrel Nut Zippers, including founder member Jimbo Mathus, are looking for a fiddler. Andrew Bird, a classically trained violinist fresh out of music school and seemingly headed for an orchestral career. Bird meets Mathus at a Zippers gig, hands Mathus a demo tape and ends up playing with the band for a few years before embarking on a solo career.
Now, years down the line, ‘These Thirteen’ sees these old friends coming together again to record their first album as a duo. At its heart this is a sparse sounding folk record covering, in Mathus’s own words “mythology, the human heart in conflict with itself, madness, rural things, urban things”.
All songs are co-written by Mathus and Bird. Collaboration on the writing came easy to the pair and that is also evident in the way their voices blend together on the album. Taking turns to lead, their vocals are never anything less than mesmeric and affecting and, when they come together, the resulting harmony is a lovely thing to behold.
There is often an old-time country feel to many of the songs which is probably unsurprising given the simple guitar/fiddle combination that they have brought to the album. There are occasional veers towards a bluesy or gospel sound but it is Bird’s achingly gorgeous fiddle playing that always leaves the most lasting impression.
Bird also picks that fiddle to great effect and, while the album is full of high-class examples of this it is ‘Three White Horses and a Golden Chain’ that tries to poke its beautiful head above the rest.
There are too many highpoints to pick out them all. Opening song ‘Poor Lost Souls’ is a comment on the inhumanity of LA and the stark contrasts in the have-it-alls and the homeless; “she’s just a lump of coal, but she could have been a diamond.” ‘Beat Still My Heart’ has a deceptively simple rhythm alongside what is perhaps the vocal highlight on the whole album, Bird emoting his heart out. Or, for a song to highlight that old time sound, head to the lament that is ‘Bell Witch’.
On ‘These Thirteen’ Mathus and Bird have collaborated to great effect. Two great voices and highly talented musicians coming together to present an album that is a joy from start to finish.