A musical haunting

If the new record by The Mumlers sounds somehow haunted, there’s a good reason why. The band takes its name from William Mumler, a 19th century American photographer who claimed the ability to take pictures of ghosts. Like Mumler’s portraits, the record is filled with visions of the lost; these songs are populated by 99-year-old grandmothers and drunkards, vagabonds and fools. The record sounds like the kind of uncanny Southern bar that everybody wants to find and nobody ever does, the place where trumpets play a dance that might as well be a dirge.

Although they never feel less than spontaneous, the 11 songs and a b-side that make up “Don’t Throw Me Away” are prime examples of craftsmanship, showcases for growling horns and unpredictable structures. The first track, “Raise the Blinds,” opens with a whirlwind of trombone, clarinet, percussion and a vocal performance that sounds like water blackened with cigarette ash. The noise of the recording perfectly suits lines like “Drag your carcass over here/there’s cut-rates on the beer/if your legs are wood.” Halfway through, the song switches to oohs and ahhs reminiscent of the Beatles, before the drums snap back in. This sort of sudden turn is everywhere on the record, but never feels frantic. If anything, it keeps the songs from becoming too comfortable, provoking a conscious engagement with the music throughout.

Time and again, the album reminds one how much better music sounds with a brass section. The trumpets waltz on “Tangled Up in You,” and the trombones make “99 Years Ago” kick like a mule. Wherever they appear, the horns keep the record’s predominantly down-tempo tracks from feeling stagnant. Also helpful are the songs’ short lengths; unlike so many bands, The Mumlers know when a song is over and don’t insist on dragging you through another verse-chorus before moving on to the next track.

Songs like “St. James St.,” a shuffling riff on the classic St. James’s “Infirmary Blues” and “Soot-Black Suit,” which quickly abandons lyrics for experimentation with guitar-horn harmonies, are both memorable and distinct. As the record develops, the occasional feeling of deja vu begins to set in, but the band always pulls some trick at the last minute to keep things from becoming monotonous. The slow tempo throughout can become oppressive, but things pick up just often enough that this is not a fatal flaw. The mix also threatens to overwhelm the vocals on certain tracks, but never crosses the line between imposing and overwhelming. To be clear, the record is flawed. Luckily, it also happens to be very, very good.

This is a smart band and an unusual one. Their songs are familiar like ghosts, recognizable but not quite natural. “Don’t Throw Me Away” is a curio, asking for more attention than most albums are willing to demand, but rewarding this attention richly. Despite the occasional misstep, The Mumlers know how to make interesting music — take a picture of the ghosts of Dixieland jazz, develop it in last night’s whiskey and leave it in a box until the corners start to turn the faintest shade of yellow.

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