Timeless sound from Rich Mattson & the Northstars

Rich Mattson and the Northstars (Album photo by Jason Kokal)

Rich Mattson and the Northstars, featuring Russell Bergum on bass and vocals, Germaine Gemberling on vocals and acoustic guitar, Rich Mattson on vocals, guitars and harmonica, Eli Bissonett on violin and Curtis Mattson on drums and percussion. Their new self-titled album is out now. (Album photo by Jason Kokal)

When they performed in my Great Northern Radio Show in Ely last summer, I referred to Rich Mattson and Germaine Gemberling as “the First Couple of the Iron Range music scene.” The pair, based at Sparta Sound in a nearly abandoned mining location near Gilbert, is involved in so many projects and affiliated with so many musicians that they are truly a force that reaches throughout the state, not just around the backwoods Mesabi landscape they call home.

With a new self-titled LP from Rich Mattson and the Northstars out this week, these musicians’ have further solidified their place atop Northern Minnesota’s increasingly relevant music scene. What starts as a rock ‘n’ roll album goes on to blend in elements of country, folk and philosophy. Each song seems to be part of an effort to understand life on an Iron Range that is somehow both dying and kicking. It’s an impressive effort.

The album begins with the most driving and representative song on the record, “This Town (Ghost Town),” a rocking lament over the machinations of a dying town. The tune seems all the more poignant during the localized economic downturn here on the Iron Range this summer, though hardly limited by that distinction. It’s a timeless take on the deindustrialization of small town America.

Mattson bobs and weaves through several songs that express that uneasy feeling between fast change and an untenable status quo, including “It’s Serious,” the most countrified tune “Old Gene,” and “Gadgetboy,” a profile of 21st century technology that provides the only timestamped element of the album.

Somewhere past the halfway point, Rich Mattson and the Northstars turn philosophical, offering several sweet songs: “They’ll Never Find Us,” the reflective “Blue Marvel,” Gemberling’s opine on the draw of the woods in “Points North,” and the slowly contemplative “Everything Has Been Done.”

The album ends almost as strongly as its start with “Songs of Chaos.”

All told, “Rich Mattson and the Northstars” sound like something you would hear on the battered front porch of an Iron Range location house. The driving, rich sound at times covers up the thoughtful lyrics beneath the surface, but as a result the music offers something valuable whether it’s playing in the background at a party or  from the intimate sound of earphones. Eli Bissonett’s violin offers the audio glue that gives this rock’n’roll album a contemplative country sound, along with solid guitar work and rhythm throughout.

This isn’t music you’d play to understand trade policy or the Iron Range economy; it’s what you’d want to listen to while trying to survive it. The Northstars might be a latter-day project for the venerable Mattson, but his sound holds up well and is built to last.

Rich Mattson and the Northstars will perform this Friday night at 9:30 at the Red Herring Lounge in Duluth. They’ll hold a CD release event this Saturday, June 6, at the Turf Club in St. Paul, with the band on the stage at 8 p.m. You can buy the CD or digital download now.

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