Any new release featuring Mike Patton is sure to pique the interest of many a musical pundit, and interests were more than piqued when the band described this album as being like “like a heavy version of the Beach Boys” prior to its release. I for one was intrigued about the concept, despite Tomahawk being regarded as somewhat lower in the pecking order of the Patton canon by fans and industry types alike. Mr Bungle, Fantomas and of course Faith No More seem to be the Patton projects du jour. However, Tomahawk is more than just Mike. Joining him are John Stanier (Helmet, The Mark of Cain) on drums, Duane Denison (The Jesus Lizard) on guitar and long time Patton collaborator Trevor Dunn on bass. Oddfellows is their fourth album, following on from the underrated and visionary reworking of native American songs that was Anonymous in 2007.
So, supergroup by definition, but just how super is the album? Kicking off with a powerful, reverberant drum beat and a strange loping guitar riff, the opening title cut quickly morphs into the familiar Tomahawk sound. Patton mumbles, whispers and croons his way through the track, accompanied by chugging riffs, jerky rhythms and spiralling solos. It’s a really interesting opener and it makes you jump to attention in anticipation of the rest of the album’s content.
Unfortunately, much of the ensuing content is rather drab to be honest. There are moments of inventiveness and rocking intensity here and there, but these moments aside, the album falls quite flat.
As the bemused expressions of the monocular cartoon animals that adorn the cover hint at, this album isn’t really sure what it’s supposed to be. It’s not all that experimental and it’s not all that catchy. Imagine either of the first two albums with a few quieter moments, some vocal harmonies, and some token jazziness thrown in, and you’ve got Oddfellows.
This album takes several listens to impress itself upon you. Much like some individual phrases of the songs themselves, the whole thing broods and smoulders away until eventually you are given a notion that there is more to this album than initially meets the ear. There is more….but not much. The newly added vocal harmonies are interesting, but heavy Beach Boys? Not even close. Denison’s riffing and soloing is impressive at times, but he also hacks out some obtuse formless sounds that don’t fit their environs at all. Patton’s vocal performances are adequate, but he sounds so restrained! He never really lets rip with the ferocity we know he can. Sure, he applies some very nice quieter touches, but whether he would care to admit it or not, Tomahawk is a hard rock band, and while the softer crooning does suit particular phrases, you keep waiting for a blood curdling shriek or guttural roar in the heavier parts…and they just don’t appear. The closest he gets is on “Choke Neck”.
The standout performances are those of the rhythm section. Dunn and Stanier are masters of their respective crafts and it is they (and the reasonable vocal harmonies) that prevent this album from becoming mere tedium. Dunn’s bass intro to “Rise up Dirty Waters” is great psychedelic jazz weirdness, reminiscent of his work in Mr Bungle. Stanier’s polyrhythms are very tight and add an extra layer of strangeness to the overall sound, but none of the drumming is any more impressive than his performances with Helmet.
The most irritating element to this effort is the way the band tease you. There are several moments that hint at something special to come, but they peter out into something else entirely and leave you thinking “why the hell didn’t they explore THAT groove some more??” The momentarily fantastic guitar riff and its accompanying drum part in “Rise up Dirty Waters” are particularly egregious offenders in this regard.
There are definite standouts though. “Baby Let’s Play” is a dark, haunting piece with some ethereal string sounds rounding it out. “Rise up Dirty Waters” is a jazz infused oddity with some great descending vocal lines and bell-like guitar tones that seem to hang, like smoke, in the air…and it also has a great guitar riff that goes for five seconds before becoming something else. “IOU” is by far the poppiest track on offer, and it’s a good one. There are some unusual vocal and string melodies that build to a huge, harmonious crescendo, that’s really quite something. But at just over two minutes in length, it feels as though it’s almost over before it began! “Southpaw” rocks along ok and might appease Faith No More obsessives. Also noteworthy is the loping opening title track, but it just serves to underscore the reality of promise followed by disappointment that is Oddfellows.
For the record, this album isn’t terrible. It’s not even bad per se. There are certainly more positives than negatives, but for a group of musicians of this pedigree, producing a disc that is merely “good” isn’t really that good at all, and Tomahawk continues to languish far below its more celebrated peers in the Patton catalogue. It’s not an avant garde work and it’s not a pop work. Instead, it sits uncomfortably between the two worlds, and while it certainly isn’t without it’s moments, it’s nowhere near as good as it could (and should) have been.