Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Mumlers - Don't Throw Me Away

There was something about The Band that made its dissolution in 1976 a melancholy moment. I loved the twangy, country blues-based, Cajun-infused music.  It was a traveling circus. When the Band disbanded it became hard to find music with the same mixture of country, folk, rock, jazz and Americana. 

One of my favorite musicians who was able to continue the sound (or who may have helped create it) is Leon Russell.  The man has transcended genres.  He has had a stellar solo career and has played with artists as varied as Jerry Lee Lewis, George Harrison, Delaney Bramlett, Ringo Starr, Elton John, Eric Clapton, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Willie Nelson, Badfinger, Tijuana Brass, Frank Sinatra, The Band, Glen Campbell, and The Rolling Stones.  His unique Oklahoma drawl accented some of the most interesting music of the past fifty years.  When he and the Band played together it was a party infused with grit and down home folk, rock and jazz. 

When The Band broke up so did the party.  Their final Thanksgiving Day 1976 Last Waltz concert at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco became legendary.  Since that time the home-spun carnival sound that The Band and Leon Russell produced became a lost art.  As the 70's wore on, and then into the '80's, 90's and early 00's, popular music became slick, produced and urban.  It was no longer a backyard party built on the music of the common man.  Record companies stylized the music, the musicians and the sound.  Nothing during this period sounded even remotely like The Band or Leon Russell.  The party was over and the mish mash of country, rock and jazz that made up that unique Americana sound appeared to have died with the Last Waltz.

The Mumlers' album Don't Throw Me Away brings the party back. On their facebook page The Mumlers describe their influences as "Opera-hop neoclassical pop-rock folk jazz slumpin' swamp stomp." In practice, it is a modern take on the musical genre pioneered by The Band and Russell.  In fact, The Mumlers' lead singer and songwriter, Will Sprott, appears to channel Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Leon Russell.  This South Bay band has been playing the SF Bay Area music scene since 2005.  They are scheduled to play at the two-day Treasure Island Music Festival on October 17, 2010.

From the first track "Raise The Blinds" (a shuffle punctuated with horns and ethereal background vocals), through the last track - the album's namesake - "Don't Throw Me Away" (a 1ate 1950's, early 1960's sounding ballad, complete with background doo-wop), "Don't Throw Me Away"  returns to a too long neglected folksy cadence.  The second song, "St. James St." is built on the classic Louis Armstrong tune "St. James Infirmary"  but tinges it with that country blues-based twang - something Armstrong probably heard down in New Orleans when he first started his career.  The Mumlers use horns and dixieland instrumentation here, and on the next track, "Tangled Up With You" (a waltz based march one might hear during a Louisiana funeral processional), that I haven't heard since The Band played "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show" on their album "Stage Fright." 

The up-beat "Coffin Factory" strays from the deep south. It is infused with organ and a great hook (who would think lyrics about working in a coffin factory could punctuate such a happy song?) and is worth listening to over and over again.  The tune is followed by "99 Years" a dirge punctuated by horns and organ - a track that could have easily been on a Dr. John album. On "Sunken City" The Mumlers back Will Sprott as his voice slinks through a comment on the human condition from the standpoint of a released convict sitting on a park bench watching the world go by.  Sprott starts the song with the lyrics:

I was sitting on a bench in the park
With smog in my lungs and a song in my heart
& some rum in my dumpling depot

The sky was flashing black & blue
The cars were rumbling down the avenue
My heart was humming soft & low

I was watching the dead leaves
Blowing across the ground
& watching the people
dragging their feet & hanging their heads down

A more modern feel washes over "Soot-Black Suit", a instrumental track heavy on guitar and horns.  It would make a great movie or TV show theme. Then, a stand-up bass thumps and guitar and drums chime in as Sprott sings "Golden Arm & Back Hand", a song that evokes Neil Young during his "After The Gold Rush" period. Thereafter, comes "Fugitive & Vagabond" a half-sung and half-whistled soft shoe linked to a syncopated drum beat. Before the album ends with "Don't Throw Me Away" The Mumlers perform "Battlefield Postcard" - a slow ballad in which Sprott sings about how to treat a lady who is blindly in love with you.

"Don't Throw Me Away" is more than a trip down memory lane.  Although The Mumlers are rooted in the eclectic musical styles of some of the most celebrated popular music artists of the past fifty years, Sprott's writing talent and The Mumler's musicianship make their sound modern and compelling.  When your music evokes comparisons to The Band, Leon Russell and Neil Young, and your lyrics can stand as poetry, only good things can come of it - like playing at the Treasure Island Music Festival amongst the cream of alternative rock.

- Old School

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