It’s no small irony that while Tomahawk’s latest album is titled Oddfellows, it is their most accessible by far. Don’t get me wrong; it’s only accessible by the standards of Mike Patton and Duane Denison. Fret not, the record is still plenty — and deliciously — weird, yet the previous dominance of experimentation is more tempered in favor of concisely constructed songs, several of which, dare I say it, border on being catchy. Such a development isn’t a surprise really, as it is something of a proportionate reaction to their last album, 2007’s Anonymous, one of the most idiosyncratic records in rock history, which saw the band faithfully adapt traditional Native American music. That the shift to comparative conventionality is under the quasi-meta, possibly self-referential album title is surely no accident, as nothing with Patton and crew is.
Opening the record bearing its name, the title track finds Patton playing with the band’s image, addressing it with a nudge and a wink — “They call us oddfellows / We’re dancing on the gallows”, Patton declares in an all-encompassing bellow. Around him throbs Denison’s riffs, sludgy with a seasick twist. The man’s playing remains as distinctive as Patton’s voice, his guitar tonalities alternately slinky, strangled, constricted, and jittery, routinely triggering physical sensations like nausea or vertigo in the listener. It’s fitting that the song’s outro features Patton scatting while Denison garrotes a sound from his instrument akin to the scurrying of a rat’s nest. The ending serves as a microcosm of the pair’s collaboration, the vocalist and guitarist fueling each other with their distinct talents.
On the subject of Patton’s voice, what can be said that hasn’t been said before? Not that further proof is necessary, but the album yet again displays how Patton is the most formidable singer of this, and arguably any, era. The sheer diversity of sounds his vocals conjure and the range of his styles are staggering, as though he’s the musical equivalent of vocal sound effects maestro Michael Winslow. That his voice (or voices) exhibits no wear and tear after decades of screaming, growling, crooning, beatboxing, and full-out rabid glossolalia is likewise incredible. As with any Patton record, Oddfellows contains no shortage of workouts for his pipes, the standout on which he does his heaviest lifting being “Stone Letter”. From a sandpaper serenade in the verses to a chorus that itself shifts line by line between a gargled yelp and a clear holler, the song affords one of Patton’s most impressive vocal acrobatic shows in recent memory. The alternating expressions simulate the protagonist’s fractured psyche, obsessed with masochistic love: “I throw you a stone letter / Smooth or rough / And I hope you read it one day / And feel the love”. Somehow, it has an anthemic quality to it with its condensed guitar chugging abruptly erupting into frenetic shredding with the detonation of John Stanier’s drum kit, a hard rock cut deserving of radio play but still too weird to garner it.
As a lyricist, Patton retains his penchant of using words more for their sound and the rhythm they can yield when strung together than for their literal meaning. As a result, most of the lyrics are nonsensical, yet more frequently than not they impart some vivid imagery or stand as absurdist aphorisms. Cases in point: “I got a love that’s second to none / You and me and him makes it one” from “Waratorium” and “You rub me so wrong, so wrong / Please keep your clothes on, your clothes on” from the sonic freakout “South Paw”. Through it all, there is fixed like a permagrin Patton’s tongue-in-cheek sincerity (or maybe authentic sarcasm is more apt).
New to the outfit is bassist Trevor Dunn, a longtime collaborator of Patton’s from Mr. Bungle and Fantômas, and a welcome addition he is. Often times, his and Stanier’s low-end provide the stable bedrock on which their compatriots can run amok, while at different points, they take to the forefront, as on “The Quiet Few”, wherein Denison’s searing guitar takes a backseat, functioning like a panning searchlight, to the rumbling and clangy rhythm section. Most impressively is what the duo does with the jazzy “Rise Up Dirty Waters”, Stanier playing a snappy Buddy Rich drum pattern while Dunn comes in with an ascending bassline that replicates a melody more indicative of an electric organ.
The record’s finest moments remain the ones where Tomahawk expand their musical palette, which for this group tends to mean a stripping away of the cacophony. There is the spooky anti-ballad “I.O.U.”, opening with sparse minor piano chords and a drum machine’s synthetic beats before Patton comes in with, “I owe you a love song / For everything I done wrong”, a recurring couplet throughout the piece. Of course, by the end, it devolves into a crashing bit of bedlam backed by Patton’s looped oooo’s and aaaa’s. And who can resist the creeptastic yet seductive “Baby Let’s Play ___”, a song of enticement that could end with its prey confined to a dungeon.
About the only thing that keeps Oddfellows from being a thoroughly stellar album are the seemingly requisite filler tracks that simply do not last in your memory no matter how many times you listen to them (“Choke Neck”, “A Thousand Eyes”). It’s telling that these are the cuts on which Tomahawk sounds like they’re repeating themselves. It’s also a shame that closer “Typhoon” falls into this block, ending so suddenly as to leave the listener without a sense of resolution.
These minor quips aside, the album is certainly going to be one to remember in 11 months when 2013’s “Best of…” lists start coming out. It’s reassuring that no matter how stale and bland the musical terrain gets, avant-guardsmen like Patton, Denison, and such remain to flare up on occasion to scorch through it, like a forest fire setting the stage for newness to emerge in its wake. In their hands, it’s proven “experimental” does not equate to “self-indulgent”.