Since his retirement from performing in 1978, Matthew Mugg has been largely regarded as just another acid casualty. His name has appeared — if it appeared at all — with the likes of Sky Saxon, Roky Erickson, Syd Barrett and Graham Bond: all of them sad and mysterious Rock music figures whose lives and careers had been derailed by drugs and dementia. Most appalling though, to those of us who were fans of Mugg's early solo work and of course the trilogy of LPs he made with the seminal progressive Jazz-Rock outfit Leprechaun, were the rumors that Mugg, like Graham Bond, had slipped into some sort of occult madness. As increasingly bizarre rumors about Mugg's behavior circulated, it seemed inevitable that his life would end tragically as had Bond's, whose strange life expired under the wheels of a subway train in 1973.
So I was surprised to say the least when I heard that Mugg would be releasing a new solo album in the spring of 2001. Mugg's curiously titled new offering, The Cats' Meats Man, is the singer/trombonist's first since he released the regrettable Chanson de la hippopotam (Song of the Hippopotamus) in 1978. Chanson sold so poorly and received such scant critical attention — the press it did receive was uniformly awful — that Mugg vowed never to perform again.
Never a virtuoso on the trombone and always a singer of limited though distinctive gifts (imagine Popeye's foe Brutus mixed with Joe Cocker), Mugg's musical skills appear to have suffered little from his years in retirement. In fact, The Cats' Meats Man may contain some of Mugg's finest performances as a trombonist.
With Leprechaun, Mugg relied perhaps too heavily on his unusual — some would say gimmicky — polyphonic style of trombone playing (Mugg's peculiar style involved singing while blowing into his trombone, creating an odd, distorted harmony).
But on "Irritatin' Woman," the slow Blues which opens The Cats' Meats Man, Mugg blows freely, using none of the strangulated tones of his past work. It's a jarring development to Mugg fans. His trombone playing on the track simply sounds too good.
But it's back to the old style on "The Stray Dog Era," a track that distinctly recalls the jazzier elements of Leprechaun's 1972 LP, A Fish Is a Dish If That's What You Wish. Here Mugg skronks, blats and wheedles into a multi-tracked cacophony of voice and brass. Accompanying Mugg, Radon Marsh's zither glides over the frenzy of burping trombones, while former Leprechaun drummer "Screech" pounds out a primitive, cymbal-less groove.
If a trio of zither, drums and trombone isn't odd enough for you, then take a listen to "Puddleby on the Marsh," an instrumental portrait of the London suburb where Mugg grew up in the 1950s and '60s. Many listeners' hearts might quail at the thought of a 12-minute trombone and electric bass duet, but the track is a beauty. Moody and oddly fragile, especially considering the instrumentation, "Puddleby on the Marsh" is The Cats' Meats Man's most moving track.
As glad as I am to have a new Matthew Mugg album, I can't honestly say that The Cats' Meats Man is a complete return to form. With Leprechaun, Mugg could be a stunning lyricist, even at his most opaque. Listen to the 17-minute "The Shoe Box Bird" on Leprechaun's Celluloid Crack-Up (1972). It is an astonishing protest of the war in Vietnam, combining the biting wit of John Lennon with the dour fantasy of Gormenghast Trilogy author Mervyn Peake. Distressingly, the lyrics on The Cats' Meats Man are virtually incomprehensible.
Still, mediocre Mugg is better than most other artists at their peak. And although The Cats' Meats Man may not be one of Mugg's most tuneful or endearing works, its primal Blues may be Mugg's most personal statement. Mugg is simply one of the most underrated artists in modern music. It's great to have him back, even if most people never knew he went away.
Matthew Mugg The Cats' Meats Man is available on Ring of Laudanum Records.