Arts & Entertainment, The Muse

Running on a Thread-Mule

With Gov’t Mule, you know what you’re gonna get. Massive riffs, infectious grooves, and a ton of swagger accompany every Mule release, and By A Thread, the band’s latest album released October 27 on Evil Teen Records, does not deviate from that trend.

Mule is fronted by the prolific Warren Haynes, also a regular guitarist for The Allman Brothers Band, along with the man who toured with The Dead over the summer in place of Jerry Garcia. Haynes’ thick, meaty guitar sound, high-flying solos and slide work are well known to many, and his gritty voice meshes perfectly with the blues rock of both the Brothers and Mule.

And Haynes shines brightly on this latest release, the first with new bassist Jorgen Carlsson, who replaced Andy Hess earlier this year. The bass player position has been an elusive one to maintain for Mule since it was first vacated by the death of Allen Woody in 2000 of a drug overdose, five years after the group’s first album. The following three years saw Mule release two full-length albums with guest bassists and embark on a tour which involved the bassists from The Allman Brothers, The Meters, Widespread Panic and The Black Crowes before Hess joined full time in 2003.

The album leads with an ominous bass line and a guitar duel between Haynes and ZZ Top guitarist and singer Billy Gibbons, which gives way to perceptive Haynes lyrics and typically heavy, in-your-face distorted riff rock. This melding of heavy guitar with a funk feel mixed with Haynes’ full vocals is the Mule sound, and one that is found throughout their catalog, from ‘Bad Little Doggie’ off 2000’s Life Before Insanity (Capricorn) to the title track of their 2006 release, High and Mighty (ATO).

‘Railroad Boy’ is a classic Haynes story: eerily depressing and sad, yet at the same time both heartfelt and with a message that he delivers through his well-traveled voice, singing ‘tell the world I died for love.’ The lyrical sob story is set against the backdrop of an electrified Delta blues song with a marching beat from drummer Matt Abts that spurs the song along. The song feeds into ‘Monday Mourning Meltdown,’ which, along with album ender ‘World Wake Up,’ contains a serious look at some social and political issues, asking ‘what about all the blood on the battleground?’ against a spacey and effects-laden backdrop.

Despite the occasionally depressing nature of his lyrics, Haynes is a phenomenal writer about the human experience, a fact that comes through strongly in both ‘Gordon James’ and ‘Frozen Fear.’ The former is another semi-sad story about a lonely character in the vein of ‘Wine and Blood’ from 2004’s Deja Voodoo (ATO), while the latter is another take on Haynes view of how life should be, invoking his song he originally recorded with the Allmans, ‘Soulshine,’ with the effervescently optimistic ‘don’t be afraid to live your life, my dear / All the rest is just frozen fear.’

Recently Mule has taken their collective foot off the distortion pedal and dabbled in dub and reggae influences, most notable on 2007’s release Mighty High (ATO). The album features such reggae guests as Michael Franti, Willi Williams and Toots Hibbert, and the dub influences can be seen in aspects of ‘Frozen Fear.” Mule has in the past reworked old songs to be played in a reggae style, though this album marks a return to the dirty blues-rock they made their mark playing.

By A Thread peaks during ‘Inside Outside Woman Blues #3,’ an incredibly simplistic and powerful song, reminiscent of Mule’s first album, which they delivered as a trio before adding keyboardist Danny Louis in 2002. Louis’ influence is heard in the high organ that is used to fill out the background to Haynes’ snarling wah guitar and halting funk/blues riff. The song builds to a peak before stopping completely, then transitioning into a filthy Haynes solo through a Led-Zeppelin’s-‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’-esque guitar lead.

The album is solid and well structured, with the heavy riff-rock neatly balancing out slower tracks, but as strong as some of the songs are (‘Broke Down’ and ‘Inside Outside’) it just feels like more of the same from Mule. However, since the band thankfully decided on abandoning their reggae flirtation, a return to form seems like a great thing from one of the most talented and meanest rock bands around.

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