An easy-going collaboration to the point of frustration
After 18 years, two members of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, the only swing revival band deemed cool to like, have reformed to make something that sounds nothing like the brassy, jazzy tunes that originally brought them together. Andrew Bird and Jimbo Mathus have gone down radically different career paths since their departure, with Bird taking his violins into acclaimed indie-folk while Mathus took his guitars in a scuzzier direction fitting for Southern rock. Fortunately, though this has little to do with the Zippers, These 13 is not the two of them playing to the lowest common denominator as the only way of finding shared ground between the two. Instead, it’s a cozy little folk album that brings together Bird’s rich textures and Mathus’ earthiness into an enjoyable whole.
At a time when many of the biggest names in folk are going for electronic flourishes or heavy distortion, it is refreshing to hear something more restrained and thus more charming. Bird’s has gotten more conceptual and dense in recent years, yet These 13 proves he can still deliver sweet morsels of charming acoustic parable. These are some of his most compelling vocal performances in a while: the openings of “Beat Still My Heart” and “Burn the Honky Tonk” are chilling as his baritone is allowed to expand throughout the mix, capturing the quiet thoughtfulness of the best Jason Isbell song. Similarly, Mathus drops the outlaw smolder of Blue Healer for a more world-weary figure, a perfect fit for the tortured misery of “High John” with its sharp violins dominating the song when they’re normally saved for a killer solo on other songs. While the two shine on their own, the final song, “Three White Horses and a Golden Chain,” brings them together as Mathus provides lead while Bird howls in the background and provides impossibly gorgeous whistling.
The production is delicate without feeling washed out or gutless. Every pluck is felt, and there are a lot of plucks across the album, from finger-picking to faster strumming. It wouldn’t be an Andrew Bird record without his trademark violin, and the solos are perfectly placed on “Bell Witch” and “Encircle My Love.” It would have been nice to hear more instrumental layers; the piano on “Bell Witch” provides delicate flutters, yet the only other noticeable use of keyboards is on the throwaway interlude “Bright Sunny South” and its one-minute of sustained accordion and organ. The same goes for some of the background vocals; songs like “Jack O’ Diamonds” could have benefitted from a more interesting vocal melody or harmonies, especially so late into the album to break up the monotony. As previously stated, the overall aesthetic is agreeable, but there comes the point when it is a little too barren.
Then again, the bare-bones structure lets some otherwise insufferable lyrics slide through without much hassle. A lot of the songs feel more like fables or parables, especially “Dig Up the Hatchet” and its tale of forgiveness. The opener, “Poor Lost Souls,” could easily come across as a condescending view of those left behind by Hollywood, almost like a bad charity single, yet it’s delivered with such earnestness and quaint detail that it works. They have the feeling of established folk staples rather than new material, which is a good fit for the instrumentation.
While it’s far from remarkable, These 13 benefits from the fact that it knows it’s a tossed-off side project from two artists with little to prove. While one could argue this means they should try harder, there is something to be said about a relaxing, effortless release as well.