Never let it be said that Les Claypool plays it safe. As if the skewed music he’s made with Primus, on his own, and with such side bands as Oysterhead, Colonel Claypool’s Bucket Of Bernie Brains, Les Claypool & The Rat Brigade, and Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade didn’t prove this hypothesis already, now he’s recorded Four Foot Shack, a country-flavored acoustic collection with guitarist/back-up singer Bryan Kehoe (formerly of M.I.R.V.) and, on three tracks, Stiff Dead Cat’s Wylie Woods on mandolin and background vocals, under the name Les Claypool’s Duo De Twang.
But what if — like me — you’re a fan of Les Claypool but not country? Don’t worry, you’ll be okay.
A mix of covers and originals from various parts of Claypool’s canon, Duo De Twang includes radically reworked versions of such songs as “D’s Diner” and “Buzzards Of Green Hill” from the Frog Brigade’s Purple Onion album, “Jerry Was A Race Car Driver” from Primus’ Sailing The Seas Of Cheese, and the Bee Gees’ disco classic “Stayin’ Alive.” Though the novelty of that last one isn’t indicative of this album’s attitude. While this album does have an off-the-cuff feel, and some of the tracks — such as the very peppy version of “Jerry Was A Race Car Driver” — do have a bit of a cheeky quality, this isn’t a collection of novelty tunes.
Well, not any more than anything else Claypool usually does. Let’s be honest, with his distinctive nasally vocals, playfully bouncy basslines, and penchant for songs about crazy characters, every Les Claypool song has a bit of a comedic edge. But as is so often the case, Duo De Twang is more along the lines of Frank Zappa or Phish than “Weird Al” Yankovic (save for “Stayin’ Alive,” though it may just sounds like a novelty cover because I lived through the disco era).
Instead, for fans of his other work, Four Foot Shack is like hearing him do an unplugged thing, sans the polite clapping between songs. Especially since eight of the fifteen tracks come from other Les Claypool collections (nine if you count the cover of Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses,” which Primus covered on their 1998 EP Rhinoplasty).
That said, because Les, Kehoe, and Woods aren’t playing the standard unplugged compliment of stand-up bass and an acoustic guitar, and because they often take a decidedly more country-ish approach to the arrangements, this sounds very different from the infamous acoustic show Primus did back in ’93 as Bob Cock & The Yellow Sock (which, perhaps not coincidentally, also included “Jerry Was A Race Car Driver” and a snippet of “Stayin’ Alive”).
Take, for instance, their covers of Tom Connor’s “The Bridge Came Tumblin’ Down” and Jimmy Driftwood’s “Battle Of New Orleans,” both of which have horse clopping-like rhythms that make them sound like something you might’ve heard on Hee Haw if you were old enough to have seen that show when it aired.
That, however, is as country-fried as things get here. In fact, the album goes from “Bridge” right into “Rumble Of The Diesel,” a track that original appeared on Les’ 2006 solo album Of Whales And Woe, and even here has all the trademarks of a classic Claypool tune: an odd character bio told with his distinctive vocals and equally unique bass playing. But even that gets a bit of a country fried flavor.
The same goes for the many of the album’s Claypool covers, especially “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” from Primus’ Tales From The Punchbowl, “Hendershot” from his 1996 solo album Highball With The Devil, and especially “D’s Diner,” which not only have country twang in their instrumentation, but have been so structurally altered that they’re practically unrecognizable at first. But this just makes them feel like different songs, kind like — oh, I don’t know — when someone does a stripped down, acoustic version of a fast and heavy song.
Does that mean country fans would like Four Foot Shack? Dunno. Not being a fan of country music, it’s impossible for me to know if people into that music would appreciate Les Claypool’s unique vocals, bass playing, and lyrics. Though considering how he’s an acquired taste among rock fans….
But if you are one of those people who’ve acquired a taste for what Les Claypool has done with Primus, his solo stuff, and all the side bands I already listed, you will enjoy what he, Kehoe, and Woods do on Four Foot Shack, even if (like me) you don’t like county music. It’s not the best thing Claypool has other done; I’m still partial to the early Primus work myself. But by putting a new spin on these tunes, it makes them sound very different than they did on their respective original albums. Which may not be safe, but it sure is sound.