[30 August 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Back in the early summer of 2007, I talked to Clutch vocalist Neil Fallon for a story I was writing for Decibel magazine. Despite having just released their eighth album, their highest-charting one to date, and with a fanbase that was growing steadily with each new release, the members of Clutch had suddenly been abandoned by their label DRT, which had gone bankrupt and quickly shuttered the operation, virtually disappearing overnight. Fallon was upset about the whole situation, but there was an unmistakable sense of relief in his voice, as well. Their new album, From Beale Street to Oblivion, was supposed to come out in a lavishly-designed digipak, but instead, DRT cut corners by tackily putting a very cheaply-printed booklet inside a standard jewel case. That was the last straw, according to the band, and Fallon was seething on that day. “Everybody’s pointing fingers at everyone else”, he said, “but at the end of the day, it’s the band that looks idiotic to the kid who goes to Best Buy and buys this thing, and it looks like a band’s first demo. It’s incredibly embarrassing”.
Three years later, things have changed for the better for the Maryland foursome. The band formed its own label, Weathermaker Music, and with full artistic control over its product for the first time, Clutch continued its popular run with Strange Cousins from the West and pleased fans with a pair of excellent DVDs. Now, the power rockers set out to give the world the version of Beale Street that was always intended, with the proper packaging as well as a CD of bonus material to attract those who already bought the original pressing.
Simply put, despite how DRT wanted to present it, Beale Street is a snapshot of Clutch in peak form. The band had been on a tremendous creative run since 2004’s Blast Tyrant and 2005’s Robot Hive/Exodus, steadily moving away from the heavy riff rock that had become their staple to a more versatile, blues-oriented sound, and Beale Street continues that metamorphosis. Produced by Joe Barresi, the album has a very retro feel to it, boasting a warm, analog tone that’s very unusual by today’s over-compressed standards, and although it rubbed some people the wrong way, it couldn’t be more fitting for the band at this moment in its history.
While the album ably displays how powerful these guys still are with the boisterous opening rockers “You Can’t Stop Progress” and “Power Player”, the focus on the rest of the album is less on heavy rock and more on those groovy blues jams. It all starts with “The Devil and Me”, and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster and bassist Dan Maines locking down the rhythm section comfortably, organist Mick Schauer adding richness with his Hammond B3, Tim Sult unleashing lithe riffs, and Fallon belting out his always surreal, often brilliant lyrics—his phrasing channeling Otis Taylor more and more. The deeper you get into the record, the thicker the blues becomes: “White’s Ferry”, “Child of the City”, “Rapture of Riddley Walker”, “When Vegans Attack”, “Black Umbrella”, “Mr. Shiny Caddilackness”. That said, the true high point of Beale Street is the incendiary “Electric Worry”, a re-interpretation of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Fred’s Worried Life Blues” with a new, contagious chorus (“Bang bang bang bang!/Vamanos vamanos!”), which then segues brilliantly into a new reading of “One Eye Dollar”, a track from the group’s 1999 album Jam Room. It’s one of Clutch’s finest moments on record, and the one-two punch has since become a live staple, guaranteed to bring the house down.
In addition to the video for “Electric Worry”, the bonus disc contains a solid selection of live tracks. The live setting is where this band excels, and we’re treated to 38 minutes worth of terrific performances. The first half is comprised of a BBC Radio session from late 2006, highlighted by a lively cover of Cream’s “Politician”, the aforementioned “Electric Worry”/“One Eye Dollar” combo, and the Blast Tyrant gem “Cypress Grove”. Recorded a year later in Australia, the final four live tracks are even better, led by a boisterous reading of Howlin’ Wolf’s “You Gonna Wreck My Life”.
Last, but certainly in the band’s opinion, not least, the art design shows us once and for all just how cool the band wanted From Beale Street to Oblivion to look, with its cut-out slipcase, three-panel digipak, and gorgeous booklet, designed like an old yellowed songbook complete with woodcut illustrations. It might have taken three years, but it’s great to see Clutch set things right. Best of all, it serves as a reminder of just how strong this record still sounds. You know Clutch will always deliver good new music, but to see the band making sure the past is honored properly is just as gratifying.