You know Clover, even if you think you don’t. In 1977, they backed Elvis Costello on My Aim Is True. Later, a slightly altered version of the band became Huey Lewis & the News. Members played with the Doobie Brothers, and also played with the likes of John Prine and Lucinda Williams. This is all to say that Clover has quite the musical pedigree. But before all that, they were their own band, making their own tunes and trying to make a name for themselves as nothing more than the country-soul-rock outfit Clover.
Real Gone Music has collected the band’s first two records – 1970’s Clover and 1971’s Fourty-Niner – together on one disc, and they show a band far removed from the angry power-pop of Costello or the ‘80s soul-pop of Lewis & the News. Instead, Clover fell right into the thick of early ‘70s, country-tinged rock music. They sounded like a more pop-oriented version of the Band, and their twangy, swampy sound is nothing if not catchy. Clover clocks in at just over a half-hour, and doesn’t waste a minute, fitting in rangy hooks and tight melodies at every turn. Opener “Shotgun” has crunchy, funky guitars and lively vocals that give the song a lean power. Love song “Monopoly” is closer to Flying Burrito Brothers’ turf, but it’s extended metaphor – which is either about government or business practice, it’s hard to tell – is charming even if it doesn’t quite hold together. The most spacious song on the record, “Wade in the Water”, dips into more bluesy sounds, dragging the guitars through the low mud and giving their riffs some space to echo out.
Fourty-Niner takes the taut energy of Clover and eases up a little, giving us a more introspective sound. Even the bouncy pop of “Harvest”, which opens the record, has a soulful, shuffling chorus backed by shadowy organs and built up by bittersweet vocal harmonies. “Keep on Trying” is an R&B-influenced heartbreak tune. The title track is a country-soul jam that gives the vocals room to stretch out and vamp. In fact, the whole record feels looser, more confident than its predecessor, and if that slows the frenetic tempo of the first record, it delves deeper emotionally and we get a better feel for who the band is.
And who the band is might be the main issue for Clover. While these two records are charming and catchy, history has done them no favors. As it stands, these feel like second-tier country-soul records, ones with energy but not much unique personality. As hook-filled as these songs are, those hooks are also often by the numbers. So it’s no real wonder Clover ended up attaching itself to move distinct musical voices later. Make no mistake, these guys can play and play well, and the best parts of these albums do show them playing their hearts out. But too often these two albums feel like exercises, like practicing getting these rock and country-western and soul sounds down perfectly instead of getting the feel of them right. In the end, then, Clover/Fourty-Niner is a pleasant, interesting listen, but in terms of significance it’s little more than a musical footnote, the solid sound of players that went on to play others’ songs better.