By the time Marylander stalwarts of groove Clutch release Earth Rocker through their own Weathermaker Music imprint on March 19, it will have been nearly four years since they last issued a studio album. That record, 2009’s Strange Cousins from the West, pushed the four-piece’s blues/funk fetish to its furthest reaches to date, with cuts like “Abraham Lincoln” and “Let a Poor Man Be” enacting a successful blend of the blues and Clutch’s long-running thread of heavy rock consistency while “50,000 Unstoppable Watts” and “Minotaur” offered the lyrical quirk that fans have come to expect over the course of their career. Four years is the longest stretch ever between Clutch offerings, but during that time the band was hardly idle. In addition 2010’s “King of Arizona” digital single, Live at the 9:30 double-DVD set (review here) and overseeing Weathermaker reissues in 2011 of the three albums initially released on DRT Records – 2004’s Blast Tyrant, 2005’s Robot Hive/Exodus and 2007’s From Beale Street to Oblivion (group review here) – the first of that set also including the Basket of Eggs EP of tracks from throughout their catalog reworked acoustically – as well as releasing a new single, Pigtown Blues, for Record Store Day in 2012, Clutch toured the holy hell out of Strange Cousins from the West (live reviews here, here, here and here), only really stopping to start up again in the US or Europe. Doubtless they could have kept going – theirs is a fanbase loyal and prone to showing up – but speaking as a fan of the band (which, make no mistake, is the point of view from whence this review comes) it was past time for a new album, and if you want a sense of how Earth Rocker relates to Clutch’s discography as their 10th outing, there’s really no need to look past the title. Where Strange Cousins from the West was long, somewhat meandering, vague in its origin, From Beale Street to Oblivion clear in its place but also on the longer side of a title, and Robot Hive/Exodus had that pesky slash offering grammatical complexity, Earth Rocker – the mere phrase – lands with a stripped-down thud as one imagines a large book might on a dusty table. The band has noted their drive to write faster songs and between that and their returning to producer Machine to record, Earth Rocker has no little amount in common with Blast Tyrant nearly a decade later. Even the syllabic rhythm of the two titles is the same, and you know Clutch get down with some syllabic rhythm.
If that’s the starting point, so be it, but Clutch – vocalist/sometimes-guitarist Neil Fallon, guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster – are in no way repeating themselves with Earth Rocker, and whatever similarities of approach the latest work might share with Blast Tyrant, those similarities are filtered through the subsequent years of blues influence and road dogging. These songs are not a step backward. They are, however, some of the most straightforwardly heavy rocking tracks Clutch have written since Blast Tyrant, or, I’d argue, the preceding album, 2001’s Pure Rock Fury, albeit with a thicker, larger production sound. An impeccably structured 44-and-a-half-minute collection of 11 tracks, Earth Rocker is also the shortest of the band’s full-lengths (by about three minutes, but still), and telegraphs its side A/B split no matter the format, with the subdued blues moodiness of “Gone Cold” just as potent a centerpiece for the linear listen (CD/digital) as it is a cap for the first side of an LP, following the quick rush of an initial salvo in “Earth Rocker,” “Crucial Velocity,” “Mr. Freedom,” “D.C. Sound Attack” and “Unto the Breach,” all of which feed into a considerable sense of momentum. The opening duo of “Earth Rocker” and “Crucial Velocity” are especially indicative of the record’s course, coming on short, crisp and tight in casting aside (for the moment and relatively speaking) funk groove in favor of forward thrust. In its verses, “Earth Rocker” is a bold declaration of intent, with an acknowledgement of audience in the chorus that’s not to be overlooked. Gaster and Sult introduce the song with a tense quiet beginning, but when the track begins to move, it doesn’t stop again, Fallon injecting mwa-ha-ha-ha bogeyman laughter into the chorus as though the very notion of being an “earth rocker” – one who might proclaim, “I don’t need your stinking laminates/I don’t need your VIP/I don’t need your validation/’Cause I wear mine on the sleeve” – is something other or intimidating. He’s probably right, and as the song hits its peak, the frontman offers the plainspoken perspective, “Yes I’ve lost many battles/And even more days/But if I had to do it over/I’d do it just the same,” leading to a last chorus that in a few minutes has gone from mission statement to victorious decree. Not a bad jump to make in just three and a half minutes, and though the pace continues on “Crucial Velocity,” the lyrics move to a semi-sci-fi thematic with Fallon being pursued perhaps by his own future and escaping in an Oldsmobile.
“Rocket 88” was a 1951 single by Ike Turner and his band Kings of Rhythm that legend has it featured the first distorted electric guitar, so with that reference, the chorus of “My Rocket 88/Fastest in the land/Crucial, crucial velocity!” taps into more than one kind of escapism, Fallon going self-referential in the third verse with the lines, “Everybody, everybody keeps telling me/Neil you got to quit your lowdown ways.” The band behind is suitably motoring, Sult adding wah flourish while Gaster claims debt from his snare (beating it like it owes him money) and Maines builds himself a summer cottage in the pocket of a signature start-stop verse groove. On some level, this is Clutch sounding like Clutch, but it’s also bigger and tonally heavier than they’ve been since they last collaborated with Machine. The faster songs are refreshing without sacrificing their rhythmic presence, and they set up Earth Rocker to unfold its diversity with “Mr. Freedom” and the subsequent tracks. It’s a tricky turn between “Mr. Freedom,” – as politically-minded lyrically as the title would indicate – “D.C. Sound Attack,” “Unto the Breach” and “Gone Cold,” but they pull it off and keep a flow going without so much as batting an eye, keeping hints of the opening rush in “Mr. Freedom” while dialing back the tempo slightly, upping the funk for “D.C. Sound Attack” and delving, as previously noted, into quiet blues for “Gone Cold.” Clutch aren’t strangers to political material – digging back through lyrics, even “One Eye Dollar” as it appears on 1999’s Jam Room is easy to read that way – and “Mr. Freedom” stands on the shoulders of cuts like “Mr. Shiny Cadillackness” from From Beale Street to Oblivion and “Freakonomics” from Strange Cousins from the West in a line of recent excursions into progressive social commentary. Like the first two tracks and Earth Rocker as a whole, however, it’s also more blatant in calling out those who play on fear for political ends or find cause for righteousness in the superficial trappings of patriotism, not even through the first verse before Fallon gives it straight: “Every time you open up your mouth a load of horse shit comes flying right back out.” The stance notwithstanding (I’m not one to debate even if I felt a need), Sult’s wah should be enough to win any conservative holdouts. Maines, who at times can seem to be lost in the mix beneath layers of guitar, fills out the chorus well as part of what I consider heavy rock’s best rhythm section alongside Gaster, and though “Mr. Freedom” is the shortest piece on Earth Rocker at 2:45, it lacks nothing in impression left. I haven’t seen the preachy rear someone’s vehicle since I first heard it and not thought of the second verse line, “And every bumper sticker on the back your car makes you feel a little more real.”
When it hits, “D.C. Sound Attack” is a highlight among highlights. Its groove is a little funkier, Gaster riding the riff while Fallon throws in some blues harp for the quick intro into the first verse, and the layering in the chorus makes it a standout as the vocals respond to their own calls and the lyrics, “Hell hounds on your trail/What a pity/But that’s the price you pay/Shakin’ hands in Necro City” lead to a cowbell-infused bridge no less memorable, calling for the titular D.C. sound attack. Of all the material on Earth Rocker, “D.C. Sound Attack” is a takeaway – one of those songs that will likely feature in the live set for years to come, and one well suited to that environment in spite of what the layering adds to the guitar and vocals in the studio version, the lyrics still consistent in their roughly sociopolitical lean with the much more blatant “Mr. Freedom.” Gaster’s drums prove as integral to the song’s ultimate success as Sult’s riffing, and the overall result proves immediately infectious where a track like “Crucial Velocity,” because it moves faster, needs a few listens to really sink in on the listener. That’s the case as well with “Unto the Breach,” which follows “D.C. Sound Attack” and revives the initial speediness of “Crucial Velocity” and the title cut. As it’s positioned between “D.C. Sound Attack” and “Gone Cold” – both distinguished right away in the tracklist – it’s easy to pass over “Unto the Breach” as an afterthought, but it fits well on side A, reviving the uptempo thrust and exuding a lyrical paranoia full of hobgoblins, Morris men, and the Swiss guard, dropping references to the Gutenburg press and of course the title call, snatched from Shakespeare’s Henry V. All these actors end their revels in just 3:31, so “Unto the Breach” is nothing if it’s not densely packed, and whatever landmark “D.C. Sound Attack” may have provided before it or “Gone Cold” might provide after, “Unto the Breach”’s full-run chorus is effective and engaging. Another track, less intricately arranged in its layering, that seems to be built for the stage, Sult taking a wah solo to break up the thud from Gaster’s drums and Maines poking through with low end just before the last verse/chorus rush. It’s a deceptive song in the spirit of “Child of the City” from From Beale Street to Oblivion, but its qualities emerge over a longer term of listens and its merits ultimately prove greater than one might initially believe.
But then, Earth Rocker doesn’t really have a point where it lags. Into and beyond the centerpiece/side-A-finale “Gone Cold,” there are shifts in mood, but never a dip as far as quality goes, cuts like “The Face” and “Oh, Isabella” bringing new sides of Clutch’s personality to the overarching full-length flow of the album while “Book, Saddle and Go” and “Cyborg Bette” (pronounced “Betty”) answer back to “Earth Rocker” and “Crucial Velocity” and closer “The Wolfman Kindly Requests…” gives über-hook companionship to “D.C. Sound Attack” while also providing Earth Rocker with the grand finish it well earns. The change is evident only a couple seconds into “Gone Cold,” as Maines steps forward to lock in a smoky groove that Fallon tops with a semi-spoken reading that opens some in the chorus but never loses its quieter sensibility, Sult’s guitar more of an accent for the rhythm line than the driving force of it. Gaster could be using brushes, but don’t quote me on that. In any case, his snare is earthy even when quiet behind the echoing few lines of the guitar solo – classy, short and sweet – that gives way to a break of just Maines and Fallon for the final verse before the last chorus runs through a couple repetitions over a subtle musical build that, again, shows no desire to “get loud” at any point. The soft ending of “Gone Cold” – really the whole track’s softness – is especially contrasted by the full-volume mid-pace crash of “The Face,” which is about as big-sounding as Clutch get on Earth Rocker, its guitars dialed to “huge” for the memorable chorus following a verse catchy in its own right thanks in no small part to Fallon’s preacherman vibing – “They arrive on a sunny day/Offering the residents a better way/Before you know it you’re in line and chanting refrain,” and so on – as the construction unfolds as somewhat more complex than some of Earth Rocker’s material in that they don’t return to the initial verse again, instead repeating a pre-chorus and the chorus again, getting bigger and bigger each time through the chorus while Fallon achieves a narrative by changing just a few words of rock and roll’s triumph over the bigotry against it – “Uncounted Les Pauls explode and take flight/Where there was darkness/Now only light” – while Sult layers in hair-stand-up leads and the wicked receive their proper leveling by the awesome force of irony-free passion. I’ve spent a lot of time waffling back and forth on which is my favorite slice of Earth Rocker, but for the journey “The Face” undertakes and the epic imagery invoked in the progression, and the sheer, lethal, immaculate efficiency of it all happening in a little over four minutes, I’ve yet to hear the song and not be wowed by it.
And having gone quick, funky, quiet and huge (to put it in oversimplified terms), Clutch in a sense go back to the beginning of Earth Rocker with “Book, Saddle and Go,” a song that could just as easily be referring to their touring ethic though the lyrics talk of highway robbery and Pinkerton corruption. At first, with Gaster’s thudding toms, it seems like they’re going to stay and dwell a little longer on the largesse of “The Face,” but the verse brings a start-stop setup for the rush of the chorus, and the lyrics seem to reinforce the idea that movement is what it’s all about – the song itself is booking – though the double entendre of booking a tour isn’t ever absent despite the 19th Century thematic. Maines’ bass fills in the chorus answer back Sult’s guitar and greatly enrich the groove, and the no-frills ethic carries into the shuffling push of “Cyborg Bette,” Gaster seeming to be on three-handing his snare in the verse carrying the top-speed winding Sult riff into soulful territory (yes, I did just call drums “soulful”) while Fallon’s protagonist laments the titular robot ladyfriend, two lines to a verse and then rushing into the first of two strong chorus hooks, “Superior programming/Superior hardware/Superior firepower/Superior hardware,” leading into the repeating line “Why you got to run so hot?” in a sequence of rhythm that Fallon has made duly familiar over the years, puns abounding in the third verse’s, “You come home speaking/Speaking mean and rude/You come home reeking/Reeking mean of crude.” “Cyborg Bette” was one of a few songs Clutch had played live prior to recording the album, and one in particular I think will be better appreciated once fans have had a chance to sit with it. Where “Earth Rocker” offsets its uptempo styling with its “mwa-ha-ha-ha,” like “Crucial Velocity,” “Cyborg Bette” simply by being faster and more straightforward can catch off-guard anyone who might have expected Clutch to continue on the more jam-based course of Strange Cousins from the West. Production playing such a large role in the band’s output on all their records, back to the change from 1998’s Elephant Riders, which at that point seemed smoothed out, into the rawer Pure Rock Fury and even before that, with the 1995 self-titled sophomore LP into Elephant Riders – that’s not to mention the aesthetic shift between the noise rock of 1993’s debut, Transnational Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes and Undeniable Truths into said self-titled – four years after Strange Cousins finds Clutch a different-sounding band altogether, but the characteristic elements and influences in what they do are all present and accounted for in Earth Rocker. It might be an adjustment, but it’s one easy enough to make, is what I’m saying, and for longtime fans who’ve followed the band through their various explorations, even easier.
Returning to a more narrative lyric and a middle-paced progression, “Oh, Isabella,” is the longest track on Earth Rocker at 5:18 and one of only two – the closer being the other – to top five minutes. The time is well-enough spent balancing the verse/chorus interplay of a strong hook with an ensuing linear musical build, getting large at the end but never quite reaching for the same heights as “The Face.” Still, if the jammy side of Clutch’s approach shows up anywhere on the album, it’s here. Sult leading the way in a break at the halfway point while Maines and Gaster – as if it even needs to be said – are locked into the rhythm that sets up a return to the verse and chorus foreshadows the final jam to come. Even that, though, the purposeful wandering, is given a sense of pointedness by Machine’s production, and not only does it add stylistic variety to the latter portion of Earth Rocker while recalling some of Clutch’s more recent outings, it also sets up the finish of “The Wolfman Kindly Requests…,” which starts off with a series of jarring hits and a killer bassline from Maines before getting directly underway introducing its chorus instrumentally as the intro to the first verse. Fallon’s lyrics are front and center, delivered in a single layer at first, but growing all the more in presence for the chorus – “Party’s over you all got to go/The wolfman is coming out.” The song, once thought to be titled “Newt Gingrich,” is as fitting a closer as the album could want, its chorus a landmark on par with that of “D.C. Sound Attack” for its communicable properties. A bridge after the second verse offers another strong hook en route to the third –marked by the lines “Some people say my mind is a ghetto/Obviously they’ve been gentrified” –and a resurgence of the chorus, which makes a welcome return, however over the party doesn’t actually prove to be when they modify the bridge line as an outro and let it carry Earth Rocker to its finish. Starting essentially from scratch, they use that riff as the basis for a final build, Gaster going big on the drums behind and announcing with a fill just when they kick into a payoff that ultimately proves short-lived, topped with “hey”s and “uh-huh”s that want nothing more than to add to the last-word-in groove, which of course they do or they wouldn’t be there in the first place.
Concise to its last, Earth Rocker ends sharply on a hit and then is over, even once the initial novelty of a new Clutch has passed, the impulse to play it again from the start remains strong. Getting past that novelty is another matter entirely, and though I’ve been through these tracks more times than I would admit even if I knew the count, I’m not sure I’m there yet. Whether that says more about my level of nerditude or about the album itself, I don’t know, but much like Blast Tyrant before it, if there are some who’ve lingered on the fence of Clutch indoctrination over the course of the last however many years, Earth Rocker would make a lively entry point to say the least, and whatever else you can say about it, it’s worth noting that few and far between are the bands who not only have kept a consistent lineup for the span Clutch has, but who’ve managed to sound revitalized by the time they get around to their 10th full-length. Maybe that was the idea they had when they went into the writing – change things up and keep it fresh – or maybe they thought they pushed the jammy blues as far as they could go, though “Gone Gold” and “Oh, Isabella” would seem to indicate otherwise, but whatever the case, the barnburner substance of Earth Rocker makes itself welcome and Clutch – who no matter how many records they put out will be primarily a live band just for the days, weeks and months at a time they spend on the road – have given themselves plenty of spice to add to the set. Whether the shift in aesthetic marks the beginning of a new era for the long-running foursome or not is an answer only the context of future outings can provide, and if Earth Rocker proves anything at all, it’s that 20 years on from their first LP, Clutch can still leave their fans guessing as to what might come next.
Tags: Clutch, Clutch Earth Rocker, Earth Rocker, Maryland, Weathermaker Music