In less skilled hands, using Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 as a mood springboard could have resulted in a work of painfully studied cool, but as Barbarossa, James Mathé has tapped that movie’s air of poignant fatefulness and sweet romance, rather than its self-conscious gaucheness.
His second album is an admirably understated exercise in song-based electronica, which sees him moving away from the acoustic folk-pop of his 2008 debut into material with a looser feel, much of it recorded direct to tape on old Casiotone keys, analog synths and a vintage drum machine. He’s claimed he “really fancied getting back to basics” and although these 10 new songs are simple, they’re by no means simplistic; tenderness, rather than tentativeness is the watchword and Barbarossa’s directness speaks volumes — even if his reedy voice rarely rises above a bruised croon.
This is a modern soul record, reflecting its creator’s kinship with both Bill Withers and Jamie Woon, as creamy opening track “Bloodline” attests, but it ranges far and wide in terms of both sources and emotional temper. Contemporary hip hop beats underpin both the punchy “Turbine” and darkly swinging “The Load,” while the deeply groovy “Pagliaccio” suggests The Beta Band refracted through a mirror ball. “Keeping all the mistakes in, warts and all,” was Barbarossa’s aim, but if there are blemishes in Bloodlines, they’re remarkably well camouflaged by its lustrous beauty.