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Rich Mattson is a name that comes up often when it comes to this area’s music. Mattson goes way back with music and has been playing gigs since the 80s. Some of his more recent bands include: Ol’ Yeller, The Bitter Spills, The Tisdales and of course this project, Rich Mattson and the Northstars. Those who make it out to local music in the area with any regularity have probably seen him play at some time or another. The other factor that makes Mattson notable is his work with bands out at his studio, Sparta Sound, out in Sparta, MN. He has been operating the studio since 2007 and I have had the opportunity to review a number of the CDs to have come out of that studio over the years.
Mattson brought in some familiar names that have been playing with him in various projects over the years. First off, he brings in his partner, Germaine Gemberling, on vocals and acoustic guitar. The two have played a lot in recent years together with this project and their former band, Junkboat. The Northstars also include: Russel Bergum (bass/vocals), Eli Bissonett (violin) and Curtis Mattson (drums).
Both Mattson and Gemberling have a background in rock music ranging from hard alternative rock to punk. This new self-titled album is considered by the group as “cosmic folk.” This album stays pretty good about not falling too close to a specific genre like roots or country, which seems to happen a lot especially with folk. Mattson and the Northstars have taken a different approach to run-of-the-mill folk with an album that goes from dramatic and intense to beautiful and deep. The melodies and structure of some of the songs have the feel like they might have been meant for a musical.
This album covers a lot of ground between sound and lyrical content. Right from the first track there is no skirting around the subject of a mining boom and bust with the song, “This Town (Ghost Town).” “This town was built above a bunch of precious minerals and they’re coming to dig them up/Not tomorrow, not today, think I’ll wait and see what happens to this ghost town.” The town of Sparta was actually moved to Gilbert in the early 1900s due to mining operations. The song has an upbeat feel with a little bit of country and pop influence.
I know I just said that this album stays away from falling too close to country and this is true especially when looking at the next track, “Muslin Gauze.” Although “This Town” is actually a fairly serious song, it doesn’t have the foreboding feel that the verses of Muslin Gauze has. The song drifts back and forth from the darker verses to the more carefree choruses. What hits the song home is the terrifically dramatic breakdown just after the two minute mark. Bissonett has a background of gypsy jazz music with his violin work and this song highlights that well with this breakdown.
The sound of the band continues to change with the track, “It’s Serious.” With the third track on this album things really come full circle with this song that is hinging more on being a rock song than a folk song with some crunch on the electric guitar in parts. “Rock is dead, and how do you really feel?,” goes a line in the song.
The album takes on a more traditional country feel with the song, “Old Gene.” What this song doesn’t have is typical country lyrics. The song seems to make some political statements that specifically show distrust of the government. “They came to his neighborhood and arrested him/They didn’t even read him his rights/He always said it was going to come to this/They’ll take you from your property and add you to the list,” goes a part of a verse. In the song, Old Gene is never heard from again a presumed dead after he is taken away.
The album keeps shifting its sound with tracks like the lighthearted, “Blue Marvel.” The swirling violin and piano parts done by Al Oikari really pull this song together along with some harmonica and Mattson take on more of the vocals on his own with just certain parts bringing in harmonies with Gemberling.
The album’s lyrics are constantly driving deep although some songs are easier to understand exactly what they’re about than others. The track, “Songs of Chaos,” mixes folk with a laid back psychedelic feel that gives way to vocal melodies and solid violin parts. There is nothing much chaotic about the track and is a nice let down to the end of this rather eclectic folk album.
This album is hard to pin down with its overall sound. There is a sound to it that has a 70s singer-songwriter pop folk vibe to it and then there are a bunch of things from the musicianship to the vocal delivery where it ends up being something more. While the songs do fit together because they all have the same basic instruments on them, each song also stands out in its own certain way. Whether it be lyrics about political or relationship issues to having a bouncy country song to an alternative rock song to a semi-funk song with weird metaphorical lyrics, things keep getting switched up throughout.
Overall, this interesting album is well done and it’s not too much of a surprise considering the experience of those who worked on it. This album had some things I did expect, it is a folk album with some pop melodies, but it kept jumping around where it didn’t get a worn out formula feel to it.
Rich Mattson and the Northstars will be playing a CD release show a Red Herring Lounge on Friday, June 6 with Matt Latterell and Small Town Anthem. The album will be available at the show, Electric Fetus and can also be found online. Look up the band’s facebook page for more information or go to richmattsonmusic.com.