365 Days of Album Recommendations – Nov 7

Half Deaf Clatch – The Life and Death of A.J Rail

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Modern “blues” music isn’t long on thinkers OR songwriters. And you don’t see a lot of “concept” albums in the space. And if you DO see them (Eric Bibb and Chris Thomas King, I’m lookin’ at you), they’re generally not … well … shall we say … thought out.

And then there’s Half Deaf Clatch, née Andrew McLatchie.

Half Deaf Clatch is everything we need a shit ton more of today. He can play his ass off, he can write his ass off, his music is tough as shit, and he’s smart as all get out.

Acoustic blues, modern blues, folk blues, country blues, alt. blues, disruptive country blues, whatever you want to call it, he’s got it, and he is it.

First-time listeners may make Tom Waits comparisons, but if you do, you shouldn’t. Because it’s lazy. Because Tom Waits, for all his gifts, can’t play the blues. Because Willie Johnson and Bukka White.

If you want a real frame of reference, think early John Fahey instead. Fahey was, in many ways, the originator of the aberrant country blues concept album, and Clatch has entered a super-worthy contribution to a canon that arguably begins with Blind Joe Death.

Like Fahey, Clatch treats his acoustic guitars and banjos, slides, and fingerpickin’ fingers as ingredients in an orchestra, and builds up soundscapes that feel rich in narrative power even as the tones are stripped down, raw, funky, and acoustic.

Clatch’s approach to melody reminds me most of Charley Patton, who is, for my money, still one of the most underrated songsters of all time. The breadth of Patton’s repertoire was astonishing, and while modern wishful-sinful country bluesers have largely latched on to the Pony Blues vibe, Clatch hooks on the melodic, folky side of Patton, recalling songs like Some Of These Days I’ll Be Gone, Elder Green Blues, Gon’ Move To Alabama, and more.

Lyrically, the album is a character study of a character by the name of A.J. Rail, a trope that enables Clatch to project himself into a different time and place while simultaneously circumnavigating some of the perils of playing sounds that evoke another era. My two cents, it’s not necessary, and the album would scorch whether it hung on the Rail persona or not. If you want a Waits comparison, think of Rail as Clatch’s Frank, the hero/anti-hero whose “wild years” offered Waits a narrative architecture to hang some of his best songs on.

In the song No Hallelujahs, Clatch asks the troubadour’s most plaintive of questions:

“No Hallelujahs”
Baptised in black fire waters,
I was raised a son of the dirt.
Who will sing hollow hallelujahs,
who will sing them with me?
The songs of holy refuge,
they don’t mean a thing to me.
Who will sing hollow hallelujahs,
who will sing them with me?
Lets drink from the Lethe waters,
free your mind from sin and blame.
Who will sing hollow hallelujahs,
who will sing them with me?

~

And the question lingers: Who WILL sing them? Clatch does, at genius levels.

Fortunately, Clatch is prolific as hell. That’s a really good thing, because too few others are writing, recording, and thinking at this level.

If this music is to be rescued—and it DOES need rescuing—from the clutches of the redundant, unimaginative, pandering bullshit we’re getting served today (Taj and KebMo, I’m lookin’ at you two, cuz at least one of you ought to know better), we’re going to need more than just Clatch on our team.

Fortunately, we’ve got Half Deaf Clatch. Thank fuckin’ god.

 


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