Cincinnati's Maurice Mattei Sees the World (and Then Some) on 'Jungalingle'

Mattei's new double album is further evidence of his everything-everywhere-all-at-once stylistic diversity.

click to enlarge Maurice Mattei's new album Jungalingle is being released on Bandcamp at the end of this week. - Photo: Courtesy of Maurice Mattei
Photo: Courtesy of Maurice Mattei
Maurice Mattei's new album Jungalingle is being released on Bandcamp at the end of this week.

If one were to observe Maurice Mattei from a clinically calculated distance, the superficial conclusion would be that he's a folk-centric troubadour with a PhD in Dylanology. That is certainly one component of Mattei's potent musical arsenal and it appears on his new digital-only, double-length release, Jungalingle.

But Mattei has never been a one-trick singer/songwriter. He's a deeply knowledgeable musicologist who skillfully incorporates elements of rock, pop, blues, jazz and, yes, folk, into the fabric of his singular presentation. That's what a more thorough observation would reveal.

Here's the thing about observing Mattei: he's always observing right back, with hawk-like intensity and interest (those same skills serve him well in his other careers as an artist, graphic designer and photographer). He's a keen student of human nature, which pairs well with his boundless abilities as a storyteller, making Mattei one of Cincinnati's most prolific and erudite musical raconteurs, a position he's occupied for the better part of three and a half decades.

In a catalog littered with casual brilliance, Jungalingle stands among Mattei's best works, not merely by the sheer volume of its 25-song track list, but also by the consistent strength of his slice-of-life songwriting. While Mattei and his band, the Tempers (bassist Bryan Berwanger, drummer Debbie Immesoete and occasional guitarist Bill Grapes), had stage-tested a lot of the songs on Jungalingle, Mattei massaged and tweaked them during Covid lockdown, lending them a slightly darker edge than they might otherwise have had.

"It kind of is a pandemic album, because I started writing some of the songs when that was going on," says Mattei over a cup of vegan chili at Sitwell's. "'Nowhere is Never Far Away' is directly about that, and there may be a couple of other songs. There are more topical things on this one than there usually are. Things seemed to be unraveling all over but I don't get directly topical, it's just suggested. There's a different vibe. I think society as a whole has lost its footing. I'm sure it'll be fine in the end, but there are things I find very unsettling and all that has seeped its way into the songwriting. I don't want to say it's apocalyptic, but there's a dread to the lyrics."

Jungalingle is a spartan affair, featuring Mattei alone with his songs to create a Robert-Johnson-in-a-hotel-room-with-a-guitar-and-a-mic atmosphere. It is essentially the same structure as his previous album, 2019's Velvet Lined Room. Although the albums feel very much connected, Mattei sees them as yin/yang expressions.

"This one is darker, thematically. There's a lot more death in it, honestly," says Mattei with a laugh. "That was somewhat prevalent in Velvet Lined Room, but that one had kind of a light feel to it. When there's a light feel to this one, there's an underlying darkness to the material. I think the sound is better on this one overall; we got it down better this time. But they are of a piece, and part of that is just how they were done. There's a song on Velvet Lined Room called 'The Circus Never Leaves Town,' and it's kind of dark but when the band does it, it's almost a dance tune. There are uptempo songs on Jungalingle, but there aren't any dance tunes on this record."

The sound of Jungalingle can be directly traced to the input of Mattei's son Alex, who is a stop motion filmmaker with a studio's worth of audio gear for his own purposes. Jungalingle benefitted from everything that was learned on Velvet Lined Room as well as inevitable technology advances.

"Alex uses Audacity and a nice mic," says Mattei. "I did it at home. We EQ'd [equalized] each cut the same way, and just added a little reverb to it and maybe increased the volume a little bit. I did it over the course of three or four days because Alex wanted his shit back. He was very patient."

Other than a few false starts, everything on Jungalingle represents Mattei's first take on each song. As noted, there is a certain amount of bleakness to the album, but the album is more reflective than depressing. "Nowhere is Never Far Away," "Empty Graves" and "Twilight of the Day" are, as Mattei describes them, about "time essentially fading into nothing" and "the ephemeral nature of life," while "Our Little Town" examines life after the Western Kentucky tornadoes. And some songs have an earthier inspiration.

"'Wrong Side of the Bar' is a good one," says Mattei. "My favorite bar is on the West Side. It's called Poppy's. I love that place. I was in there one day, and there was a guy who's always in there, yelling at some guy on the other side of the room, 'You're on the wrong side of the bar!' He just kept yelling it and I thought, 'What a great title.' I wrote the song the next day."

Like any creative personality, Mattei has idiosyncrasies that crop up in the course of every project, and Jungalingle is no exception. When he collected up all of the material he had for the album (which will be posted on Bandcamp at the end of this week), he realized that he had 22 tracks. And that just wouldn't do.

"I don't like even numbers, so I wrote three more to make it 25," says Mattei. "Those are the only ones I consciously wrote. 'How About You' was one, I think 'Better Man' was one, and I think 'Am I Keeping You From Something?,' which are really three of the better songs on the album. That happens to me all the time. I always tend to write the better songs at the end of a project."

The digital release of Jungalingle is important for the simple fact that it allowed Mattei to release all of the songs at once, which wouldn't have been financially feasible with two CDs to produce. He's contemplating the possibility of working with the Tempers on electric versions of some more of Jungalingle's acoustic songs (a handful are already in their setlist), with a thought toward doing a crowdfunded studio recording of a few of the songs for a physical release.

"I'll miss having the hard copy, and that's why I'd love to do the songs with the band," says Mattei. "Maybe vinyl. That would be nice."

As with the bulk of Mattei's voluminous catalog (which can be found on Bandcamp as well), Jungalingle is an exercise in stylistic diversity. And he wouldn't have it any other way.

"I don't consider my work necessarily Americana or alt-country or rock and roll," he says. "When I started writing when I was young, it was all knock-offs of things that were around. I didn't find my own voice until I listened to older music, Library of Congress stuff. Now it's a wider variety of genres. That's one of the things that made the Beatles interesting. If I want to do a song with a pop standard feel, then I'll write a song that fits that. My favorite music to play is rock and roll, but I love country and old pop and blues. I think you should be able to work that in, if it doesn't sound like you're a poser, and I don't my stuff does. It's dictated by the song."

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