Mattei proves that more can in fact be less with his lockdown album delivering an over-indulgent twenty-five tracks.
It came as something of a surprise to discover that ‘Jungalingle’ the new release from Cincinnati-based singer-songwriter Maurice Mattei is actually his 27th album to date, going back to his debut ‘Grandview’ which came out in 1995. Recorded very much in guitar/vocal mode the bulk of the tracks for the new album were originally stage-tested by Mattei’s regular backing band The Tempers before the outbreak of Covid put everything on hold. As was the case for so many artists during this period Mattei found himself working in solitude, tweaking many of his songs to suit a solo performance, and in turn helping to create a slightly darker and sinister edge to the material. Self-produced and self-released ‘Jungalingle’ delivers a staggering twenty-five songs and clocks in at just short of ninety-five minutes.
The opening number ‘The Tropics’ quickly set the tone with Mattei’s guitar settling into a gritty blues groove while his vocal delivery falls somewhere between the deep gravelled tones of Malcolm Holcomb and the smoother baritone of Bill Callahan whose somewhat dispassionate lyrical delivery also resonates on a number of songs throughout the album. ‘Empty Graves’ is one of two co-writes on the album, the other being ‘The Lies I Never Told’, both with The Temper’s bass player Bryan Berwanger. Here Mattei’s draws from his poetic soul with lines such as “vows renewed my funny valentine, worth their weight in thistle and brine”, while the jaunty pace of the arrangement offers the perfect juxtaposition to the sobriety of the narrative “empty graves are here for one and all”. The sinister theme continues with the dark and brooding ‘Am I Keeping You From Something”, with the dissonant chords helping to supply the tension. Elsewhere ‘Wake The Dead’ again evokes the aforementioned Holcombe while ‘Can’t Stand To Be Awake’ and ‘Nowhere Is Never Far Away’ finds Mattei taking a slightly tongue cheek swipe at modern life, his dry wit and acerbic lyrics drawing comparison to late great Warren Zevon. ‘My Little Town’ graphical brings to life the loss and devastation caused by the frequent Tornadoes that terrorises so many of the U.S. states with his lyrical gravitas perfectly capturing the solemn mood of the aftermath “there’s much to do, but not much to say”. The characters that populate Mattei’s songs rarely walk down the sunny side of the street, instead they are more likely to be found skulking in the shadows somewhere on the edge of town where life is hard as told on ‘You’re A Big Boy’ but there is room for the reflective with the empathy found in ‘Maggie Rose’ reminiscent of early Tom Waits.
‘Jungalingle’ clearly demonstrates Mattei’s talents as a songwriter, however, there is a but, and with this album it is a large but. The advantages of self-producing and self-releasing one’s own album and not being tied down by either an over-fastidious producer or constraints of a record company must seem quite liberating. That said, the pitfalls are just as glaringly obvious as this album amply demonstrates with its twenty-five songs and ninety-five minute running time displaying scant regard towards self-regulation or quality control. The best twelve tracks here would have made one mighty fine album suited as they are to the stripped-back arrangement of guitar and vocal. Unfortunately neither Mattei’s vocals or guitar dexterity can offer enough range or variety to sustain the duration of the album, and though he regularly crams his albums full of songs, eighteen on his previous album, working with a band generally allows for a broader arrangement which goes someway to negating this issue. I am well aware of the multitude of different listening options available in today’s world but as an album review it must be addressed as a complete entity.
To summarise, ‘Jungalingle’ has some excellent songs that with more constraint could have made for a very good album, dare I suggest one of the best of Mattei’s career. Sadly its potential is lost under the weight of too many tracks which, at best are not suited to such a stripped-back approach, though in most cases are simply not good enough.