With a moniker cribbed from Captain Beefheart, you wouldn’t suspect ex-Pontiac Brothers guitarist Jon Wahl’s baby to mewl forth much in the way of pub-rock revivalism. And you’d be mostly right. Locked into a stupefyingly precise dada-blues/hard-rock fusion on Poor Robert, the quartet zooms along like a dragster doing 110 mph with cruise control (particularly on a hard-as-nails version of the Fab Four’s less-than-robust “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide…”).
Unfettered by standard song structure on much of the eponymous longplayer, Wahl’s mercurial yelp skitters across measures like Richard Hell at his most dislocated. At times (“Papa’s Got Us All Tied in Knots”), Clawhammer sounds like Half Japanese gone classic rock. Then again, at the end of the finale, the group indulges in a spate of angular jamming that sounds like vintage Allman Brothers. That they never actually parrot the good Captain is to Clawhammer’s credit; that they can evoke his spirit as convincingly as they do on “Warm Spring Night” is nothing short of eerie. On Double Pack Whack Attack, Wahl and his cohorts inflict varied degrees of damage to faves by Patti Smith (“Pumping”), Pere Ubu (“Final Solution”), Eno (“Blank Frank”) and Devo (“Uncontrollable Urge”), a band that seems to be a sort of talisman for Clawhammer. From there, it was a short conceptual leap to taking a whack at covering (with the blessing of Mark Mothersbaugh) the spudboys’ seminal debut album in its entirety. The result falls somewhere between tribute and ruination.
Ramwhale‘s viscous production can’t mask the fact that this mostly unsatisfying, overly boogie-drenched collection indicates Wahl is holding back (or is perhaps impeded by his double duty as drummer/token male in his wife’s band, the Red Aunts — not to mention guitarist Chris Bagarozzi’s moonlighting in thrash-funk outfit Down by Law). Pablum loosens the wingnuts palpably: Wahl barrels from gravel-gargle (on the visceral “Vigil Smile”) to muezzin wail (on the Bill Burroughs biograph, “William Tell”) without so much as popping a lozenge. Clawhammer also forges a welcome return to its radar-gun-defying speedball antics on the tequila-and-ephedrine paroxysm “Montezuma’s Hands.”
On its overdue major-label bow, Thank the Holder Uppers, the foursome caper rowdily like (dead end) kids set loose in a candy store. The sonic debris launched — particularly on the protracted “Five Fifths Dead” — ushers in a whole new era of reasons to duck and cover.