James Mathus – National Antiseptic – Review

James Mathus & His Knockdown Society

National Antiseptic (Mammoth)
by Craig Regala

This guy formed the Squirrel Nut Zippers with his wife in the ’90s. I never knew he had blues guitar roots, but here they are. He played on the North Mississippi Allstars’ “Shake Hands with Shorty” and with Buddy Guy on Sweet Tea. The North Mississippi Allstars core group is the Dickinson boys and their Dad (who’s produced many fine records – including this one – over the years by bluesy-based rock and roll units. The Replacements and Alex Chilton come to mind, and he worked with Ry Cooter and probably did a listenable Stones disc. I don’t know much about Jim Dickinson, but he certainly puts the grease in the blues, keeping the songs focused but loosely held with the swinging elastic backbeat. I suppose that’s the “rhythm” in “R&B” – giving the players room to edge around the beat, creating “feel.” “Feel” is what guitar magazines talk about when they’re not talking about “tone.” (Neither of which the stuff they’re now covering has.)

So is National Antiseptic anything but nostalgia? Well, all that is old is new again if it’s the first time you’ve heard it… Plus, I don’t get the musty smell of “purism.” The Squirrel Nut connection may put this music in front of a new audience, and that’s good. The songs are OK, classicist without being freeze-dryed, the approach isn’t as rough as, say, the majority of the Fat Possum roster, but it isn’t beer commercial blues either, the ’80s sound of producers getting everything shiny. So this may be Johnny Lang for aging indie-rockers, but hey, that’s OK…