I love Aerosmith. I think Toys in the Attic and Rocks are among the most balls-rockin’ long players to ever be laid to tape. But there is a certain title given to the Bad Boys from Boston that they have failed to earn for over 30 years now. This title lay unclaimed for many years thereafter, but at some point in the mid-90’s the throne was claimed. Ladies and gents, Clutch is America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. Album after album, tour after tour, these working class heroes from Maryland have mixed rock, punk, metal, and hardcore with Delta blues, funk, jam, gospel, and just about every other style of truly American music so seamlessly that you’d never expect the styles were ever separate. And guess what, Strange Cousins from the West finds them right on course. The album, their ninth official full length, and first on their own Weathermaker label, largely continues the obsession with Dixie-tinged-hard rock that they’ve been toying with lately, but also finds ways to bring in elements from the rest of their career.
For much of their existence Clutch have generally been a power trio with Neil Fallon providing vocals and occasionally a second guitar. Keyboardist Mick Schauer joined in 2005 for two albums, but left last year. To fill this void, Fallon has become an almost full-time second guitar on Strange Cousins. This is evident from the very first second as Fallon’s slide guitar gives a greasy introduction to album-opener “Motherless Child,” a song that is musically and lyrically very Delta, but remains completely Clutch in its funky push and underlying sarcasm.
The album really gets going with leadoff single “50,000 Unstoppable Watts,” a thick-riff rocker that showcases the band’s desire to bring back the bizarre, a characteristic all to scant on their previous album From Beale St. to Oblivion. “Watts” is followed by “Abraham Lincoln,” an undisputed new classic in blues-oriented rock and likely the best song featured here. The storytelling lyrics, vocal performance, guitar harmonies, and slow stoner drive all combine into the kind of captivating tune that Clutch have tried to write for years with songs like “The Regulator,” but have come up just short. De facto title track “Minotaur” then ups the ante on strangeness with a minor key verse, megafunk bridge, and particularly engaging grooves from guitarist Tim Sult and skinsman Jean-Paul Gaster. There is a reason Wino himself tapped JP to play drums on his solo effort, the man can bring the Bonzo like nary another soul. His speedy shuffles on “Freakonomics” help the song to be the fine little package of insanity that it is.
Other strong moments come when Clutch fully embrace their obsession with the blues and American roots rock. Fallon’s slide guitar work is featured prominently on “Let a Poor Man Be,” a southern-funkster that will translate ideally to the band’s live jams. Album closer “Sleestak Lightning,” the title of which fittingly pays homage to Howlin’ Wolf (and “Land of the Lost”… ?!) is a laid back and humorous little ditty that somewhat brings to mind “Hoodoo Operator” from the band’s rarities collection Slow Hole to China.
Clutch have decided to once again work with producer J. Robbins, who helmed the boards on their 2005 effort Robot Hive/Exodus. The past experience together has been advantageous: where Robot Hive felt just a bit flat, Strange Cousins feels very live and organic. The drums are clear, the riffs are chewy, and the always stellar bass work of Dan Maines is featured better than ever (just listen to that thickness during the intro to “Minotaur”). In general the album is far more stripped down, having an overall feel more akin to 1999’s Jam Room than any other Clutch album.
The only musical shortcoming, as startling as it may seem, comes occasionally from Fallon’s vocals. Fear not, his Zappa-by-way-of-Douglas Adams lyrics remain among rock’s most bizarre and engaging, but from a melodic stand-point he still doesn’t seem completely comfortable in his newer non-screaming/yelling shoes. Take “Witchdoctor” as an example. All in all it’s an enjoyable track, but the vocal melodies on the verses sound lifted from the pool of modern Clutch, and particularly ape his work on “The Devil & Me” from Beale St. But these are minor quibbles; Neil is mostly as spot-on as the rest of the band.
Strange Cousins from the West is not the best Clutch album, not by a long shot. They released their Toys in the Attic when they put out their self-titled classic in 1995, and their Rocks with Elephant Riders in 1998. But god knows they’ve never released clunkers like Get a Grip or Nine Lives. They have stayed consistently great throughout their career, evolving slowly but surely with each album and live set. Granted, it would be thrilling if they released a new album worthy of a perfect songwriting score, but complaints are minor, and this is yet another rip-rocking addition to the legacy of America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. Blast this in the car and understand the truth: only the freaks have all the answers.
BONUS: Strange Cousins comes in one of the coolest album packages I’ve ever seen, and I mean ever.