By Scott McLennan
The new album demonstrates just how versatile a singer/songwriter Mike Mattison really is.
Before COVID-19 forced us all to slam on the brakes, singer and songwriter Mike Mattison was scheduled to perform at City Winery in Boston on April 21. Like much of everything else in the world, the gig has been postponed.
But we can still get into Afterglow, the excellent new album Mattison released on March 20 and was planning to support with a spring tour.
Mattison is best known as a member of the Tedeschi Trucks Band and, before that, lead singer in the Derek Trucks Band. But his work with the band Scrapomatic and his previous solo album, You Can’t Fight Love from 2014, reveal different musical facets.
Afterglow features a batch of tunes that swerve in and out of a number of influences — country, R&B, blues, and pub rock — with sharp, literary lyrics binding the eclectic project together.
“I came up studying English, American literature and poetry,” said Mattison, a Harvard University grad. “I pay a lot of attention to the words. I try and pack layers of meaning into a song and maintain some ambiguity. Songs can be like poems that you can keep coming back to and find something different each time.”
Mattison’s song “Midnight in Harlem,” the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s first real signature track, perfectly illustrates his point with its succession of crisply drawn vignettes that lurch from darkness toward hope.
The literary bent on Afterglow, however, heads down a more raucous road. And some of that has to do with the leaner band Mattison chose to make the recording. Scrapomatic guitarist Dave Yoke and Mattison’s TTB bandmate drummer Tyler Greenwell were the group’s core. Pianist Rachel Eckroth, bassist Franher Joseph, and Scrapomatic guitarist Paul Olsen also contributed to the album, which was recorded in Greenwell’s Nashville garage. “It was really old school. I was literally in a garage band again,” Mattson joked.
But the looseness of the format gives Afterglow a relaxed, ambling feel that takes off with “Charlie Idaho,” a folk tale about a murderous episode in a Southern work camp. The title track rejoices in a loping, carefree country groove. The mood turns a bit more sinister on “Deadbeat,” a drug-blurred lament that sifts its Americana groove through a Graham Parker filter. Mattison said he had the sound of Parker and Elvis Costello in mind when he put together Afterglow; they are most apparent on the rocking track “Kiss You Where You Live.”
Mattison offers an alternate take on “All You Can Do Is Mean It,” a song released by the TTB last year on its High and Mighty EP. “I just wanted to do it my way,” he said. “I have songs in the quiver, and they can get a definite spin one way or the other. Typically, once they are recorded, that’s it, that’s the way it is.” Mattison’s interpretation of “All You Can Do is Mean It,” while closely aligned with the TTB version sung by Susan Tedeschi, is a bit quicker and more piano driven.
Keyboard player Kofi Burbridge, who died in early 2019 and was Mattison’s bandmate in both the Derek Trucks Band and the TTB, also adds to the album’s luster. Burbridge brought in the melody for “I Really Miss You,” a slow-burn R&B track, and asked Mattison to come up with lyrics. Not only did Mattison craft some beautiful verses, he delivered them in an ethereal falsetto.
“I was just so glad he liked it,” Mattison said.
Mattison said he is always writing something. The material that appears on Afterglow took a few years to accumulate; the tunes did not fit in with what would be expected from Scrapomatic or the TTB. That, however, does not mean these songs are second-stringers. Actually, they demonstrate just how versatile Mattison really is. “The key is knowing yourself,” he said. “You have to know when you are done with something.” Mission accomplished on Afterglow.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.