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Review: Oddfellows by Tomahawk

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Rock supergroups are strange animals, and difficult to classify. Generally, they begin as projects for musicians who admire each others’ work to jam together and have some fun. They last one or two albums, before duty to the members’ primary bands comes calling and dissolves them, leaving behind a lightning-in-a-bottle slice of time. Often, these will find their way into our record collections as a curiosity from an esteemed musician that we dust off now and again to see what happens when said musician flexes his/her creativity, freed from their normal gig.

Oddfellows marks rock supergroup Tomahawk’s fourth studio album. The group is comprised of Duane Denison (Jesus Lizard), Mike Patton (Faith No More, Fantômas), John Stanier (Helmet, Battles), and new bassist Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle, Fantômas). Happily, the collective talent creates its own, unique sound, not feeling like any of the members’ other outfits. The band stands on its own, not falling into the category of “side project curiosity.”  Truth be told, I purchased their first album as such a curiosity as an unabashed fan of Mike Patton. I don’t have everything he’s ever released, but I’m well over 50%, which, given how prolific he is, is saying something.

What I found in Tomahawk was a dark concoction of atmospheric rock (with a smattering of jazz thrown in), propelled by searing guitar and crashing drums, assisted by moody basswork, and given life by some of Patton’s most focused vocal stylings. The created mood is like something from the Wild West — dusty and dangerous. The group’s first two albums, the eponymous Tomahawk and Mit Gas, fit very nicely together. Well, about as nicely as Sid and Nancy fit together.  Sort of “cut from the same cloth, but not entirely healthy.” I admit, to my shame, that I skipped their third title, Anonymous, a collection of “covers” of Native American songs. I’ve listened to a few clips and they failed to excite me. I may have to pick it up and give it a fair listen as a complete work.

But Oddfellows finds Tomahawk back in the same wheelhouse as the first two albums. Denison’s guitar is as crisp as ever, and runs the gamut from brooding atmospherics to full-steam-ahead rock riffs.  Patton’s vocals are alternately soulful and threatening. His “normal” theatrics — screams and yelps and growls — are held in check here, and it works.  As the biggest name in the band, he could easily turn the music into “The Mike Patton Show.” Instead, he brings just enough of his weirdness to fit perfectly into each song. John Stanier is an incredible drummer. Seriously, listen to the Battles album Gloss Drop.  His entire drum kit is a snare, a high-hat, a bass drum, and one rarely-used crash cymbal. And the beats are never boring!  It’s like he stripped drumming down to its bare essentials and thrived there. His kit for Tomahawk is bigger, but his contribution is so understated and just perfect for the music. He ebbs and flows with the music, providing the backbone of the outfit, and never overreaching.

New contributor Trevor Dunn does the same. He is an amazingly accomplished bassist, yet serves the music, providing just as much as the rhythm section needs, and not a note more. Listen to this, and then the track “Ars Moriendi” from the Mr. Bungle album California, to see what he’s capable of.

I think that may be the greatest accomplishment of Tomahawk — that such incredible musicians can get together and create whole albums’ worth of stripped-down rock music, without making them collections of show-off-y solos. Listening to Oddfellows, I never get the sense that ego was ever an issue. The band carries a unity of purpose and puts it all into the music. What you’ll find here is not your father’s rock music.  This is not Top 40 radio-rock. It is dark and moody and still too weird for my wife to enjoy. However, if you’re looking for some well-crafted rock music for a road trip through the desert, Oddfellows is the album for you.

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