[4 February 2014]
Les Claypool is a busy man. Besides keeping Primus going for more than 25 years, he’s dabbled in all sorts of side projects, solo work, and guest appearances. Four Foot Shack can’t exactly be considered a departure for the bassist; he’s done scattered twangy acoustic material in the past. But it is the first time he has done an entire album in this fashion.
As the name “Duo de Twang” implies, this record is just Claypool and guitarist Bryan Kehoe playing songs together. Mostly, Claypool is on acoustic dobro bass and Kehoe plays an acoustic guitar, though not exclusively. Oh, and there’s a foot pedal tambourine to keep the beat. Besides the slight, 42-second opener “Four Foot Shack”, the album is entirely made up of previously recorded songs, with Claypool and Kehoe playing Claypool tracks and a handful of covers.
The album essentially begins and ends with Primus songs, “Wynonna’s Big Brown Beaver” and “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver”, respectively. It’s no coincidence that those are the band’s two most famous songs; a clear enticement for Primus fans who don’t usually bother with Claypool’s other material to pick up the album. But those are also the two most radically reworked originals on Four Foot Shack. “Wynonna” strips the song down to what amounts to a barebones bassline (at least in Claypool’s terms) and a shadow of the original guitar riff. Claypool doesn’t mess with the vocals much, so the song is familiar-sounding despite the rearrangement. “Jerry”, on the other hand, ditches nearly all of the song’s original music. Besides retaining the fast tempo and key, the song is so different as to be unrecognizable until Claypool starts the lyrics 40 seconds in. It stays that way throughout the song, which makes it an interesting experiment that fails to retain nearly any of the original’s best bits.
Less radical are the various songs from Claypool’s solo albums that appear on the record. Freed from the oddball instrumentation of Of Fungi and Foe, “Red State Girl” and “Booneville Stomp” are more accessible and less self-consciously weird here. The former’s lyrics are still too obvious to qualify as clever satire, but its dark groove is strong. The latter gives Kehoe a chance to experiment with weird guitar sounds while Claypool lays down another strong bassline, and it is one of the few times where the duo really pushes the tempo. “Buzzards of Greenhill” and “D’s Diner” are less successful, as they suffer from repetitive choruses, just like in their original incarnations on the Purple Onion album.
“Rumble of the Diesel” was originally recorded as a full-bodied funk tune with distorted bass, steel percussion sounds, and saxophone and marimba solos, and lasted seven minutes. The Four Foot Shack version of the song is half as long and effectively highlights the track’s sturdy songwriting. It also opens with an amusing bit of audience banter from a concert in Seattle where Claypool jokingly accuses the crowd of “not knowing much about fishing” and receives lusty boos for his trouble.
Then there are the covers. The Duo’s takes on The Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive” and Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box” are intentionally comedic versions that are amusing once or twice but don’t have a lot of staying power. In particular, Claypool’s replacement of “Stayin’ Alive”’s falsetto “Ah ah ah ah / Stayin’ alive” hook with a weird grunting “Heeawo heeawo heeawo” thing wears out its welcome before the end of the song. “Man in the Box” fares a bit better because of Claypool and Kehoe’s vocal commitment to the song’s wordless wailing. Also, they recast the song into a rolling “Rawhide”-style cowboy song, complete with whip cracks. Even better are the songs that the pair takes a bit more seriously. Claypool has done Jerry Reed’s inherently silly “Amos Moses” in the past, and it sounds really good here as well. In the same vein is the duo’s relatively straight cover of Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans”, which is just as fun as the original. The Ventures’ classic surf tune “Pipeline” is done in a surprisingly low key style, and it’s the rare moment where Claypool lets Kehoe take the spotlight.
The most interesting cover choice may be the obscure Tom Connors song “The Bridge Came Tumblin’ Down”. Connors, a Canadian, is probably best known in certain areas of the United States for his classic “The Hockey Song”, but this particular song about the collapse of an under-construction bridge in Vancouver in 1958 is a well-told story of an event that is largely unknown these days. Claypool and Kehoe play the song very well, and its jaunty style is a nice counterpoint to the sad lyrics.
Like a lot of the material Claypool has released under his own name, Four Foot Shack is a mixed bag. But this time around the positives outweigh the negatives by quite a bit, and the album’s relaxed vibe is a nice change for Claypool. Somehow, the “two dudes playing on a back porch” style of this project finds a middle ground between the intensity of Claypool’s Primus material and his often meandering, sometimes boring jam band-oriented solo material.