01 October 2009

Clutch – Strange Cousins From the West

Weathermaker (2009)

Clutch, those grizzled Maryland rock veterans, have been kicking out various forms of jam since the early 90s. Their sound has taken in post-hardcore, aggro-stoner and retro boogie rock. Which makes us wonder: which Clutch will turn up this time?

It’s pretty impossible to dislike Clutch, unless you dislike rock itself. Firm cult favourites from their debut (‘A Shogun Named Marcus’ is an underground anthem) and even before (Legendary label Earache released the ‘Impetus’ EP), they brought the mid-90s stoner/space rock as magnificently as Kyuss and Monster Magnet. And, as lynchpin of the former, Josh Homme, has carved out a second career in QOTSA, Clutch, like the sea, seem eternal in their restless power.

After nearly losing it at the end of the 1990s, with the unfocused Jam Room, 2001’s self-explanatory Pure Rock Fury saw them fired up once more. Strange Cousins From the West is their fourth since then; the latest in a run of consistent quality. And, while the quintet (since 2004) have consistently evolved – within their blues-hardcore template – this latest one sounds oddly familiar.

Rarely does a post-Nirvana band release nine albums, discounting the weekly releases from various distortion-pedal crews. So it should be unsurprising when the songs on said ninth album are reminiscent of past glories. Especially when those glories are worth revisiting. Yes, those snaking, catchy-yet-complex riffs, recent-historical urban mythologising and vintage sound point to one thing: career-high The Elephant Riders (1998).

Of course, if Strange Cousins… were as good as that, this would be an automatic 9. That it isn’t is no shame, as it would also mean it was superior to any QOTSA album after 2000. Or any Black Mountain album at all.

Clutch spoil us from the outset with, as Westwood might say, hit after heavy hit. ‘Motherless Child’ rolls in on one of the heaviest bouncing riffs since Entombed redefined ‘death’n’roll’ over a decade ago. If ‘Struck Down’s riff isn’t instantly lodged in your head like a psychotic lumberjack’s axe, then your dope-smoking has affected your short-term memory. ’50,000 Unstoppable Watts’ looks on paper like a song Dr. Brown might write, but he’d never have been this good at fusing science with Hendrix riffs.

Album highlight is the frankly bizarre ‘Abraham Lincoln’. As if Akimbo’s shark attack concept album last year wasn’t surreally elegiac enough, Neil Fallon and co. bring a gross-years-tardy tribute on a slow, martial beat and ever-awesome matching guitar and vocal melody. This isn’t wacky stuff, though: these boys mean it when they tell his assassin: ‘no grave for you’. Even odder is the fact that this is ostensibly a call-back to 1995 song ‘I have the body of John Wilkes Booth’. Talk about setting a president. Sorry.

The musicologist in me is ever-uncomfortable about white men bringing the blues-rock. And looking backward for inspiration. It’s also frustrating that the band insists on such a clean guitar sound. While it’s undeniably accessible to the curious, the playing suggests a heavier sound would be infinitely more satisfying. Like, say Andy Sneap’s work with Iron Monkey, or Steve Feldman’s with Unida.

However, this isn’t the dull Black Keys. And Strange Cousins… is sufficiently imaginative to work. The heaviness? It’s still more energising than Wolfmother, Kasabian, the Enemy, or whatever passes for big rock these days. If you like the riffs and weirdness, get this listened.

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