Clutch - _From Beale Street to Oblivion_
(DRT Records, 2007)
by: Jeremy Ulrey (
Bands like this are no good for the reviewing profession. We all have friends that are absolute pimps for certain bands, steadfastly refusing to admit that said band is even capable of making a misstep, let alone that they may have already made several over the course of a long and varied career. Now us, we wouldn't consider ourselves worthy of the title of "critic" or "journalist" if we didn't fancy ourselves capable of transcending the star fucking herd mentality of standard-free fanboy orthodoxy.This desirable objectivity is only attainable (or at least -provable-) in one manner: we need to be able to gather up an artist's scattered oeuvre in one big heap like a pre-lit bonfire and selectively immolate the less accomplished material in a dispassionate wheat vs. chaff culling. Then, and only then, are we able to walk tall as True Music Fans, as opposed to those maggot-dwelling band whores who allow themselves such a subjectivity grade curve that the term "rationalization" itself is reduced to subjectivity incarnate.So here we have Clutch, and with the exception of maybe "Rats" -- a single track from the Neolithic era of 1993's _Transnational Speedway League_ -- there's really nothing I can honestly point to with a disinterested shrug and mutter, "nah, not really". Well, I need more than one song to get my card punched here, otherwise I might as well just pick out a token song to rail against as proof of my level-headed objectivity toward the rest of the catalog. Christ, any fanboy is at least that smart.I thought I had _From Beale Street to Oblivion_ on the ropes after a handful of cursory listens. Clutch have been walking a fine line between the menacingly oddball ravings of their early juvenilia and an increasing penchant for nearly mainstream hard rock leanings in recent years, and if anything _Beale Street_ is as close as Clutch have gotten to a commercially accessible record, even if it doesn't exactly pander to the mass public. Nonetheless, in its bare bones, melody-laden hooks I seemingly detected a catchy, well written slab of old-fashioned rock that had in spite of itself been rendered a diversionary trifle by the very disposable lack of pretention that propelled the record's genesis. It was almost -too- catchy; the kind of instantly memorable that actually starts to get a little fucking annoying once you've worn out its charms.But I kept it on pretty constant rotation, not because I'm a masochist for genius reheated once too often, but because a pretty decent sized wedge of the old rock songs that we consider "classic" have that same sort of ambiguous disposability, and in fact only really achieve classic status once they've survived the trial by fire of getting a little long in the tooth and then later becoming new again. It's a kind of cyclical love/hate relationship sans the attendant make up sex flesh-and-blood trysts benefit from, but somehow we dig it anyway. So, long story short, Clutch more or less pass the test, and as with the uncomplicated timelessness of Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top, my enthusiasm for the material waxes and wanes with the tide of my moods; but on any given day this is worth anything from an 8 to a 9 (out of 10), so even in off moments _Beale Street_ is still worthy of pretty heady praise.First things first, though: for all the album's merits, the individual tracks might have played to their strengths a bit better with a different sequencing. The first two songs, "You Can't Stop Progress" and "Power Player", are undeniably of a piece, but they're also essentially just catchy rock songs, with only a fraction of the artistic invention (lyrics notwithstanding) present on the rest of the album. "The Devil & Me" splits the difference between catchy rock band and the Clutch of old, but it's not until we arrive at "White's Ferry" that the band's muse is first shown to brilliant effect. Kicking off with a grey-sky dirge, the song wavers back and forth effectively between upbeat and downbeat with great guitar work and some well placed organ.By now everyone's likely heard "Electric Worry", and why shouldn't it be the first single? Probably the best example of the band's burgeoning arch-blues muse, what we have here is an effective re-interpolation of Mississippi Fred McDowell lyrics with frontman Neil Fallon's own wry turn of a phrase ("Bang bang bang bang! Vamonos! Vamonos!") coupled with Jean Paul Gaster's patient drum builds and a surprise lead in to a new version of _Jam Room_'s "One Eyed Dollar", _From Beale Street to Oblivion_ reaches an early peak.While previously eschewing direct political commentary (burying it deep in arcane metaphor or just not bringing it up at all), Clutch have become increasingly direct in their swipes at the powers-that-be. Usually they're approaching it in a tongue-in-cheek manner which clashes not one whit with the carefree boogie of the actual music they've written, but in lyric fragments such as "...I feel rather victimized / And I will seek substantial compensation / Whether legally, legal-ish, or otherwise", the humor is painted in broad strokes -- which doesn't quite have the same heft as the tweaked, Tim-Burton-meets-David-Lynch observational goofs that characterize the best moments in their catalog. That style is nonetheless in abundance elsewhere: take "Montgomery Village kids, you look just the type / You sure you want to know the mysteries? You're but a trifling height". Is it not clear that Clutch are at their most infectious when they're not making a damn lick of sense at all?That lyric is from the late side two highlight "Opossum Minister", a righteously swinging ditty that showcases not only the tightness of the instrumentation but also Fallon's great strides in the vocal department over the years. The biggest grooves have been inexplicably saved for last, as "Black Umbrella" follows with a kick back to the Delta where there's "nothing left but smoke and cellar". Neither really prepares one for the floorboard shaking grits-and-sugar sway of "Mr. Shiny Caddylackness", which asks: "are you ready to prove your love to the Lord?" Well, Clutch have been to the crossroads, and once again declined to offer up their souls to the most seductive bidder. Good for them.
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