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.
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.