By a Thread is Gov't Mule's first studio album since High & Mighty was issued in 2006. Since that time, bassist Andy Hess has been replaced by Jorgen Carlsson, though Hess appears on two tracks at the end of the album. Ensconced at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio outside of Austin, the band recorded from the ground up and wrote everything in the studio. It's right; it's big and fat and nasty. Carlsson's playing style is much more aggressive than Hess', and is therefore closer -- in spirit anyway -- to Gov't Mule's original bassist, the late Allen Woody, though he possesses an adventurous sense of time and is harmonically more colorful than either Woody or Hess. Carlsson and drummer Matt Abts are a solid match, since Abts is a drummer used to shifting time signatures and allowing the unexpected in while still driving a band. The band's keyboardist and rhythm guitarist, Danny Louis, is a shape-shifter, playing to whatever is needed in a given track. His manner of coloring sounds inside and around a particular tune's framework is a large part of what makes Gov't Mule's sound so fresh here -- despite the fact that they don't stray far from what they do best. Warren Haynes and his guitar are, as usual, front and center, his guitar screaming, his big throaty growl hammering down lyrics like a Southern fire-and-brimstone preacher with earthshaking soul. The material on this set is tight; there is less jamming but Gordie Johnson's production and mixing equalize everything at ten, making it feel like the disc is recorded live.
The set opens with the pulsing bass THROB of "Broke Down on the Brazos," just before Haynes and guest guitarist Billy Gibbons enter and let the tough, riff-laden blues snarl get in and slash it up a bit. The roar is wondrously deafening and the pace is fierce. Likewise, the slightly more tuneful "Steppin' Lightly" does anything but. With its funky big rock trio riff, it kicks up dust with Haynes playing some killer funk-laden fills as Carlsson and Abts syncopate and pop through both hard rock and reggae backbeats. The hook on the choruses is a nice surprise, but it's anything BUT a pop song. Other notables include the Delta blues-flavored "Railroad Boy," which opens up into full-on stun, with staccato riffing that recalls Led Zeppelin at their very best. The Hendrix-ian "Any Open Window" is dedicated to the memories of Mitch Mitchell and Buddy Miles, and the tune's structures recall them both -- different as they were. The interaction in the rhythm section here is simply stunning. "Frozen Fear" is a country-rock midtempo ballad with a reggae backbeat and showcases Louis on Hammond B-3. The album's longest cut, "Inside Outside Woman Blues #3," also recalls the big wide-open blues and wah-wah jamming style of Jimi Hendrix. Haynes opens with a savage solo, and moves into the big, slow, metallic blues that Gov't Mule do better than anybody at present. But check the bassline; its nastiness is so powerful it rivals Haynes' guitar for the front line even if it's only keeping time. Ultimately, By a Thread was well worth the wait. Though Gov't Mule have always tried to push the envelope on their studio records, this time out they give fans enough of the tried and true while gelling in an entirely new way. If ever there were a time to check this band out for the first time, or catch up, this is the album.