Clutch - _Strange Cousins From the West_
(Weathermaker Music, 2009)
by: Jeremy Ulrey (8 out of 10)
What's funny about Clutch the last few years is how every review cites their gradual progression from various major labels to micro-indie DRT to -- finally -- publishing their own shit through self-owned Weathermaker Records as a sort of escalating artistic liberation, as if Elektra and Columbia had all those years ago strong armed the band into churning out commercial pablum album after album, subtracting year after year of productivity from the quartet's youth. I'm not so sure that matches up with the facts. Oh, I'm sure the majors gave them a load of shit, refused to financially support the quizzical whimsies that were the finished product, and just generally ushered them on their merry way after an album apiece... but by the same token it's hard not to look back on those first three, maybe four, albums as Clutch's artistic crest, when they were really reaching for that brass ring and taking every fresh start as an opportunity for reinvention.

That's not to say they've -fallen off- since then so much as merely become more conventional, more -focused-, in their contemporary influences. It's not that an album like _Strange Cousins From the West_ is a lesser entity than _The Elephant Riders_, it's simply the difference between whether you like your Clutch hungry or whether you prefer your Clutch mature. _Strange Cousins..._ is more of a direct successor to the preceding album, _From Beale Street to Oblivion_, as any prior progression in the group's catalog. If anything, though, it's even more grounded and less psychedelic than even that effort, groundbreaking though it was in its immediacy and accessibility.

Basically what Clutch have done here is create a slightly skewed but stylistically consistent classic rock album, full of tasty guitar licks and swaggering drum patterns. The almost funk-like main hook of "Minotaur" couples _Jam Room_ simplicity with the symbiotic grooving of side project the Bakerton Group, while the frenetic percussion reaches back to the heavier climes of _Robot Hive / Exodus_. The guitar solo on "Witchdoctor" comes off like a mad hybrid of Ace Frehley and Jimmy Page, and thematically that song and "Motherless Child" recall the Delta blues flirtations of _Beale Street_ as well.

Bottom line: the band have taken advantage of 2009's recording technology but otherwise kept everything post-1975 adamantly out of their sonic bouillabaisse. You can perceive it as either an artistic regression or a studious refinement of _Beale Street_'s template, but whichever way you look at it this is arguably the first Clutch album not to throw a single curve ball at anyone who had followed their oeuvre to present. That it may be the most consistent (there's that word again) batch of songs, front to end, that they've put out to date should go some way toward dispelling the impression that the band have simply run out of steam.

And so what do those other reviews really mean when they attempt to chart Clutch's artistic progress in terms of the easing away of record label politicking? You got me. It's undeniable that Clutch are making the most accessible, radio friendly music of their careers. The fact that they're releasing it on their own is a testament to the probability that this is not a "sell out" in the making, but simply a band having exhausted their more oddball inclinations and settling into a sound they're comfortable with. (Neil Fallon's lyrics, while still off kilter to a degree, are becoming more literary and less abstract, at least by his own standards; witness "I once saw figures about a mile off / so I waited in the woods until they were gone" ["Motherless Child"], deceptively straightforward yet more psychologically penetrating than just about anything he's penned to date.)

That said, it's downright laughable to insinuate that if Neil had walked into the Sony offices in 1998, a freshly laid down reel of "Struck Down" under his arm, that the label wouldn't have much rather ponied up the promotion for that than, say, "The Soapmakers". There's room for both in the canon, of course, but for the love of Miss October can we quit making such an angle out of the record label woes and acknowledge for once that Clutch have been doing it their way all along?


(article published 8/9/2009)

5/2/2007 J Ulrey Clutch: Brigands of the Mojo Hand
5/1/2007 J Ulrey 9 Clutch - From Beale Street to Oblivion
1/30/2006 P Schwarz 9.5 Clutch - Robot Hive / Exodus
7/8/1998 A Bromley Slayer / Clutch / System of a Down Slayed, Once Again
8/12/1996 A Bromley Clutch / Orange 9mm / Fu Manchu Clutching Onto the Last Orange
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