Clutch fans have become somewhat accustomed to expecting the unexpected from the band. So, with Strange Cousins from the West, they must certainly be wondering what the surprise is gonna be this time. Well, oddly enough, what’s most shocking about Strange Cousins is the fact that Neil Fallon & Co. have decided to stay the course, continuing to deliver the same sort of clean and direct blues-rock bludgeoning they began to dabble in with 2005’s excellent Robot Hive/Exodus and 2007’s From Beale Street to Oblivion. As much as Robot Hive was a neck-snapping departure from Blast Tyrant, it’s been weird to watch the band stay on this stylistic path for three entire records; one almost could be forgiven for expecting that this new disc would find Clutch heading into some new direction.

Nonetheless, Strange Cousins is anything but a demonstration of a band running in place. The nuance and intelligence that Fallon applies to such supposedly “simple” music is in full effect. While the song called “Motherless Child” that opens the disc could easily have been a chunked-up version of the old spiritual, Clutch turns it into a brand-new blues standard, dripping with groove and grime, and finishing off with a tasty, wah-drenched guitar solo that even Billie Holiday would have stepped back from the mic to gawk at. Bookending the album is “Sleestack Lightning,” a tune that similarly upends Howlin’ Wolf’s original bit of essential blues, reimagining it as a sly and greasy plate of southern-fried boogie-rock.

In between those two bits of blues-revisionism, Strange Cousins finds Clutch refining the edges of their sound. Cuts like “Also Ha Cambiado” and “The Amazing Kreskin” are pretty odd birds, packed full of noodly notes, preacher-man vocals, skanky bass lines and fluid tempo changes, giving Strange Cousins a bit of a jam-rock vibe in places. That vibe, however, is more than diluted by the powerful one-two punch that closes out the first third of the album. The barreling strength of “50,000 Unstoppable Watts” (which contains the weirdest anthemic chant ever in the form of “anthrax, ham radio, and liquor”) and the ominous thud of “Abraham Lincoln” combine to be the strongest ten minutes on Strange Cousins, putting some of the disc’s more sprawling moments into perspective.

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(four out of five horns)


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