Music

Clutchy Hopkins: The Storyteller

Clutchy Hopkins' multicultural downtempo is as routine as ever, but the glimpses of true quality hint at something he's been hiding better than his identity: an unusual talent for songwriting.


Clutchy Hopkins

The Storyteller

Label: Ubiquity
US Release Date: 2010-04-13
UK Release Date: 2010-04-13
Website
Amazon
iTunes

Nobody knows the real Clutchy Hopkins. No, not in the public-versus-private way of celebrities. Nor the you-think-you-know-but-you-have-no-idea way of reality TV. No, no. Literally, no one knows who Clutchy Hopkins is. The name has been attached to instrumental downtempo from the Ubiquity modern jazz label for the last half-decade or so, and there’s still no public information about the producer’s identity, origins, or even specific contributions to his (or her, come to think of it) own recordings.

Sometimes, this kind of caginess is a (relatively) sincere defense mechanism. Just as the shy perfectionists in Steely Dan refused to do live performances, and interviewers are barred from asking Jakob Dylan about his father, blog-beloved dubstep producer Burial hid from the music press for the better part of his existence, presumably to let the music speak for itself.

The thing is, eventually Burial buckled and gave up his name (William Bevan, a graduate of the same secondary school that produced Hot Chip and Four Tet) when the critical interest hit critical mass. When asked about his reclusiveness, he simply shrugged and claimed he was a low-key guy who just wanted to make tunes. And lo and behold, it’s these very tunes that hold up and keep him relevant, even now that we can trace them to human hands.

Clutchy Hopkins, on the other hand, keeps the curtain closed with strange devotion. With each new album comes a unique story of the collected tracks’ discovery, ostensibly contributing piece-by-piece to a gradually-accumulating mythos. The one-sheet accompanying The Storyteller claims that these recordings were the product of jam sessions between Clutchy and fellow inmates at a Mojave Desert prison where he was serving time for insurance fraud, and were unearthed, let’s see, on a beaten-up iPod wrapped in Thabeat Valera paintings. All throwaway silliness. Spinning the disc, though, makes clear why the backstory is so belabored: the music alone would never lead us to give a damn.

This is not to say it’s bad. It’s just indistinct. Like much music dubbed "downtempo", it pairs organic-sounding beats -- not too fast, not too slow -- with smoky, laid-back basslines, a guitar, an organ, honky-tonk piano, some faceless vocals, and the occasional conga, pan-flute, marimba, or whatever other "worldly" instrument happens to be lying around. And that’s about it. The tracks hit their stride early on and simply go about their groovy business, rarely stepping out of line, rarely building any momentum at all.

The opening track, “Giraffe Crack”, poises itself to buck this trend by shifting abruptly, about halfway through, from Meters-style low-key funk to cymbal-tapping, accordion-heavy Euro-groove. Then, just as abruptly, it switches back and closes out the song with a darker mix of ever-so-slightly distorted electric bass and vibe tones. If these songs were compelling enough separately, their fusion might actually amount to something. Instead, “Giraffe Crack” sounds like an Exquisite Corpse: two half-finished songs that make less than a whole.

Much of The Storyteller, come to think of it, feels half-finished. Rarely did I find myself liking an entire track, or even most of one. The best parts are generally surrounded on all sides by forgettable material. The plucked acoustic that starts off “Laughing Jockey”, for example. Or the psychedelic porn guitar that closes “Nina”. In other words, slim pickings. A strong rhythm section makes even the most expendable cuts worth some good old-fashioned head-nodding, but maybe that’s more a curse than a blessing: his ideas tend not to extend past a solid backbone. This defeatist mentality is especially frustrating when everything is going right. “Miles Chillin’” hits the ground running with handclaps and crisp bongos, and only gets better with the addition of an echoey honky-tonk piano and out-of-nowhere UFO noises. And then -- a boring clarinet melody that goes on for too long. Followed by another that generates some drama with an atonal chord, but not much.

Then there’s “Truth Seekin’”, the almost-great soundtrack to an unmade blaxploitation flick’s first nighttime chase scene, which simply never takes off. Plenty of exceptional music gains mileage out of never giving us what we want, but that’s usually because repeat listens reveal more to love. Repeat listens of “Truth Seekin’” reveal only its limitations, and turn its central squawking saxophone from jarring to grating. But when I wish Clutchy would stop winding up and just pitch already, I remember that he’s not much of a pitcher. On “Thinkin’ of Eva”, he picks up the tempo considerably for a depressingly generic Gotan Project ripoff. All accordions, cowbells, and disco beats, but no personality. Danceable, but bloodless.

No, Clutchy just needs to wind up better. A lot of his best work is with others, like last year’s Music is My Medicine, his excellent collaboration with Lord Kenjamin (whose exact contributions to that album, like Clutchy’s identity, remain a mystery). Sometimes, though, he’s perfectly capable of greatness on his own. The final track of The Storyteller, “Verbal Headlock”, comes very close to redeeming everything before it. The elements aren’t very different from anywhere else on the album -- maracas, finger-snaps, flutes, flamenco guitars, and Isaac Hayes keyboards -- and the track doesn’t really shuffle towards anything. Somehow, though, the alchemy just works. It’s a perfect balance: sui generis but unified; sinister but seductive; and most importantly, catchy but not pandering. Even the electronic bird sounds will get stuck in your head.

If Clutchy Hopkins recorded 11 of these, The Storyteller could very well be a breakthrough. We’d no longer be able to ignore the man behind the curtain, and his PR theatrics would probably have to stop. As it stands, though, it’s simply unremarkable, destined for the CD trays of hip-hop heads and the turntables of Amsterdam coffeeshop DJs, but unlikely to win over anyone else. So really, we might never find out who Clutchy Hopkins really is. Nobody is going to care enough to ask.

5

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image