This is the easiest album I’ve ever had to review because it can be summed up with one word: phenomenal. That’s all you need to know.
After typing that word, I could walk away with the satisfaction of a job well done and fully completed because this is an amazing album.
I was astounded by how great Knockdown South was. It crisscrosses genres that influenced Mathus, former leader of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, growing up in Mississippi. It’s a musical encyclopedia that engages the listener, an audio dissertation on Southern music that captivates from start to finish. If I didn’t enjoy the Zippers so much, I’d be infuriated that he hadn’t put this album out sooner.
The blues are synonymous with the Mississippi Delta, so it’s no surprise that there are many examples of this style on the album. “Hypmotized” [sic] is a beautiful R&B tune that oozes 70s soul. “Mule Plow Line” is a big psychedelic blues riff, a nod to the English rockers of the ‘60s like Cream. Video footage of the song being performed in studio is on the disc. “State Line Women” is an upbeat blues boogie reminiscent of John Lee Hooker and the raspy vocal evokes Hooker disciples ZZ Top.
Mathus reaches out passed the Delta to explore other sounds of America. The freewheeling Wurlitzer on “Boogie Music” and “Rolling Like A Log” bring to mind Southern rockers The Allman Brothers. The bass leads the way on the swamp boogie “Be That Way”, which sounds like something out of John Fogerty’s library. A Stax-style horn section fills expands the sound of country rocker “Loose Diamonds” and to keep you on your toes there’s an odd-sounding guitar riff a la Jimmy Page that makes its way onto the bridge. The album closes with two country-western tunes, “Loving Arms,” a love song with a lyrical pedal steel guitar accompaniment, and “Asked My Captain,” a ballad infused with gospel, reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s work.
For every influence that you hear, there are other older ones that you might not be aware of. When I hear the honky tonk of “Let Me Be Your Rocker” or the country rock of “Skateland Baby” with its drunken, slurred sing-a-long, I hear The Rolling Stones from the Let It Bleed and Stinky Fingers albums. While taking nothing away from their talents, those English lads had to have influences to create such an Americana sound, which I’m sure are the same people that Mathus is referring to. Knockdown South will send you searching for its inspirations.
“My personal musical vision is an all-inclusive one. Music for me starts with Charley Patton and Jimmie Rogers and grows upward from there until the present. It’s all one…” — (Jimbo Mathus)
“All-inclusive” is right. I can’t remember the last album I heard that so seamlessly covered so many genres so well. If my house were burning down, this is the one CD I would grab, because of how much it has to offer. This is a perfect example of 20th century music. It should be placed into time capsules and shot into outer space to preserve it for future generations and other life forms so they know what came before. Just make sure you always have a copy handy.
Knockdown South is the debut release on Mathus’ label, Knockdown South Records. Albums can be ordered from the website knockdownsouth.com.