Cotton Mather: August 2017 Album of the Month

Has someone been boiling yew twigs, eye of newt, goat gall, and hemlock roots? Or is it just a coincidence that two books and my favorite album of the month have Salem witchcraft associations? Let’s go with coincidence, but I’m not afraid to admit that I was totally beguiled by an in-progress sampler of The Book of Too Late Changes from an Austin-based band called Cotton Mather. The historical Cotton Mather was the 17th century minister and theologian whose treatise on the admissibility of spectral evidence had tragic consequences. The rock quartet from Texas is much more fun and no one in it actually bears the surname Mather.

The band originally formed in 1990 and made four records, including Kon Tiki in 1997, which won fandom from Noel Gallagher of Oasis. Cotton Mather broke up in 2003 and then reformed in 2012. Guitarist/vocalist Robert Harrison fronts a group that also consists of guitarist/vocalist Whit Williams, bassist Matt Hovis, and drummer Greg Thibeaux. Talk about an ambitious re-launch—Cotton Mather is now halfway through an eventual 64-song collection inspired by the Shang Dynasty’s King Wen (1099-1050 BCE). In brief, Wen sought answers from 64 I Ching readings and tossed coins to divine them. Given that gods don’t appear in the I Ching, Harrison interprets this to mean that human outcomes such as love, loyalty, betrayal, greed, etc. are more random than fated—perfect fodder for rock n’ roll.

If all of that sounds too esoteric, you could just enjoy the music, which is simultaneously evocative and fresh. You can mentally conjure swirling color projections dancing on a sea of oil in “Close to the Sun.” Harrison’s voice and the song’s ambience bear eerie resemblance to John Lennon in his LSD days. There is an acid rock/surf rock mash to “Girl with a Blue Guitar,” and Lennonesque vocals stand cheek by jowl with—and I kid you not—the punk mariachi flavors of “Life of the Liar.” There are other Beatles echoes as well, but from a different era. Both “Candy Lilac” and “Fighting Through” have the thwacky guitars and verve of the Beatles in their youthful innocence, though the dreamy pop groove of the latter is perhaps more Hollies-like. One of the really cool things about Cotton Mather is how the band reminds us of others but welds influences together in unique ways. If Devo went to a carnival and played arcade games with John Lennon, the result might be a song like “Better Than a Hit.” Infuse a heavy metal hair band with a higher collective IQ and its energy, robust power chords, and machine gun drum sprays might come out as “The Book of Too Late Changes.” The music is so much fun that it’s easy to overlook the lyrics linked to the aforementioned musings on the human condition: regret, habits of the mind, change, remembrance…. But that’s okay too. You’ll hear these things eventually as these songs are likely to be on your playlists for quite some time.

Rob Weir     

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