Mumbo Gumbo were either five years or twenty years ahead of their time, maybe both. And they were retro back in 1989 when the New York Americana quartet – not to be confused with the California band of the same name – recorded their only album, a cassette-only release, over the course of a marathon two-day, 20-song session. In the years that passed, guitarist/violinist Joe Flood and accordionist Rachelle Garniez would go on to become international touring artists; guitarist George Breakfast, now back in England, still performs, and Mark Ettinger remains as sympatico and eclectic a bassist as ever. And their album is back in print, newly digitized with ten bonus tracks. Much as it’s a charming and revealing look at these artists’ early years, it’s also prophetic: these four were making alt-country, albeit without drums, back when the guys in Wilco were still playing punk rock and the Mumfords were in diapers. And yet, Mumbo Gumbo were looking back, to the hippie folk of John Prine, 70s honkytonk and outlaw country as well as oldtime blues and latin sounds. The album is streaming all the way through at Flood’s Bandcamp page.
It’s amazing how distinctive a singer Garniez had already become at that point. This album only has two of her songs, but they’re the strongest tracks here. Swimming Pool Blue, the first song she ever wrote, is far more direct and dark than the dreamy, mentholated torch-blues version on her Crazy Blood album. And New Dog (called New Dog Blues here) is more coy and trad with its volleys of sly innuendos than the more theatrical recording on her classic 2003 Luckyday cd. She also sings lead on a casually sultry version of Sway, a Pablo Beltran Ruiz bolero famously covered by Bobby Rydell, as well as Breakfast’s fetching Strollin’ with the Wind
The album opens with Flood’s vividly aphoristic, bluesy I’m in a Hole, which might be a Vietnam reference. His contributions also include the wryly shuffling, Dan Hicks-ish swing tune Good Morning Mr. Afternoon; the sureeal, swaying Keep Listening; the jaunty, latin-flavored My Heart’s an Open Book; the soul-tinged Hard Ain’t It Hard; and the Tex-Mex cheating ballad Night on the Town. Breakfast contributes Foolish Pride, a dead ringer for an early 70s Moe Bandy track; Make Babies, probably a big crowd-pleaser; Invite Her to Dance, a goodnatured waltz; Heaven, which has the suspicious feel of a country gospel parody; and the bluegrass romp Heading for the Hills, among others.
Throughout the album, the vocal harmonies soar, Garniez adds lithe accordion flourishes along with Flood’s casually dexterous fiddle lines and several biting George Breakfast breaks for mandolin – and is that a chorus box he’s playing through, or just a very resonant mando? The album ends on a rather ghoulish bluegrass note with Dead and Gone, foreshadowing the dark acoustic Americana sounds that would start to resonate throughout Brooklyn ten years later.