AB Clyde and the Kitty Litters – Muscle Beach

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Considerable gumption went into the writing and recording of this album. The music and songwriting alike invites easy comparisons to Jimmy Buffett or John Prine, but Clyde sings like someone blissfully unaware of any connections. Stretching a serio-comic vibe out over the course of fifteen songs is an equally gutsy, though some may say foolhardy, move. It might signal creative self-indulgence from more noted songwriters, but coming from a relative unknown like Clyde, it suggests an artist sure of their creative direction. However, despite any sonic or thematic similarities, AB Clyde is clearly no crass imitator or hollow echo of past and greater performers. His sophomore effort, Muscle Beach, isn’t an entirely satisfying album, but there’s certainly enough here to justify his style and direction.

“Bulldozin’ Bad Memories” opens the album on a wholly comedic note. The female backing vocals usher in Clyde’s dramatic, quasi-croon about a love affair turned sour, but like the best lightly comic tales, Clyde establishes a context before hitting us with the chorus punch line. The productions clearly recognizes Clyde’s central position in the mix as singer/storyteller but the decision, unfortunately, results in curiously weak, muted backing track. “Nashville Girls” rectifies this some by incorporating prominent steel guitar and clinking barroom piano. It turns a throwaway song into something greater, a loose musical romp with an oddly likeable charm despite the lyrics. The song gives us the first taste from an unique side of Clyde’s talent as “Nashville Girls” will hold some listener’s attentions thanks to the juxtaposition of musical backing and lyrical content. Rarely has striking out with the ladies sounded so bubbly and light-hearted.

“Why Won’t You Make Love?” reminds me of the classic country ballad remodeled for a new age and affectionately parodied with its comedic twists. The libraries of popular music are bursting with odes to the heartbreak faded desire brings, but Clyde manages to ring something new from the subject thanks to his deceptively simple songwriting. “Wish I Was In Paris” is a song open to multiple interpretations, but the songwriting doesn’t consistently mesh in a coherent way. Instead, listeners are advised to focus on how cleanly the band locks into the song’s stylish waltz tempo. “Drinkin’ in the Dark” takes a much more serious turn than the earlier tracks, but the character of the music differs as well. Clyde and the Kitty Litters largely abandon the rootsy acoustic and low-fi sonics of old for a hard theatrical edge and a more modern sound. Clyde proves his mettle for tackling more serious fare, but fortunately doesn’t resist tempering it with brief bursts of black comedy.

“Shortenin’ Bread” is either one of the album’s few truly self-indulgent moments or else an inspired recasting of a traditional standard. While some of these older songs manage to find their ways into our cultural lexicon, primarily spirituals, terms that listeners today practically need footnotes to comprehend litter or form the foundation of many others. “Shortenin’ Bread” is musically and vocally appealing, but the song can’t help but lack a chance for fully connecting with modern audiences. The title song, “Muscle Beach”, opens with the ambient sounds of beach voices and barbells clonking together. It’s a highpoint of the album, though a minor, when the barbell clonk morphs into percussion for the song when it fades-in. The power of contrast mentioned earlier exerts its influence again here as a beautifully delicate musical track is placed against a boastful, if not arrogant, lyric. The implications are clear, but what’s clearer is that such thoughtful songwriting and strong characterizations distinguish Clyde from his influences. “I Brake”, however, is an outright fiasco with too much “listing” in the lyric and a ridiculous premise. The music has a non-descript quality that helps strengthen the impression this song deserved to end up on the cutting room floor. “Beautiful” is a marked lyrical improvement over the preceding song, but ultimately suffers from the same spark-less arrangement.

The final two numbers that are likely to make an impact on listeners, “Billy Blaine” and “Railroad Buddies”, share certain thematic similarities. The first is an imaginative portrayal of alcohol-facilitated revenge with a slowly unfolding, low-fi introduction transitioning into a relaxed mid-tempo shuffle. This revisits serious fare and prompts Clyde’s best vocal to this point. He tops it, however, with the album’s penultimate cut, “Railroad Buddies”. It’s probably the best example on Muscle Beach of Clyde’s deceptively simple songwriting and, given careful listen, probably the album’s darkest moment.

8 out of 10 stars

Rodney Hillenburg