Missoula, MT, has long had a vibrant music scene, not surprising for a liberal arts college burg. “Best bands in town” come and go, sometimes riding out to perceived greener pastures in bigger cities, sometimes disbanding and reforming as something new, but usually just fading away altogether as members leave school, change jobs, get pregnant, get arrested, etc. The truly committed stick around, creating a nice little regional niche for themselves in which they can put out records, play shows, and otherwise enjoy the pleasures of music making without the pressure of trying to be superstars. Nonetheless, if there is a band currently in town who would seem to have a legitimate shot at making a strong name for themselves out in the wider world, that band is Tom Catmull and the Clerics, and they stake their claim not with snappy MySpace spam bombs or carefully-honed image crafting, but where it counts: on the ears, via their new album, Glamour Puss.
The new record is not so much a departure for Tom and his band, but a big step up and forward. Catmull’s songwriting has always been top notch, it is just better this time around. The sound of the recording is improved (it was recorded at Club Schmed Studios in Missoula, and mixed in Seattle at the Imperial Room); hell, the band just sounds better, period. Not surprising, as this is a combo that plays a pile of shows and obviously has a great time making music together. They made a decision to record as a unit for this record, minus all the guest appearances that cluttered, at times, the previous, self-titled release. The result is a tight, cohesive recording that nearly captures their live delivery, if only slightly less raucous and energetic. The sound, from Catmull’s relaxed, almost slackeresque vocal delivery, to the slightly understated guitar playing that kicks into higher gear when the song calls for it, shines front-to-back over 12 excellent tracks.
In the past, the band has tentatively described itself as “Americana.” I don’t find that particularly applicable, as it tends to sell them short. There are too many bands claiming that label these days that have spoiled the term for me; it takes more than picking up a wooden instrument and wanking out some bluegrassy-sounding riffs to capture what was going on in the Appalachians way back when, just as it takes more than a beanie, a vest and a divorce or two to make a person a “blues” musician. After all, just because it sounds kind of traditional, or works fine under a 12-bar progression, doesn’t mean it can’t be lame, and usually is. Catmull’s music certainly has some of that traditional influence, but it is equally mixed with Texas swing (Tom hails from the Lone Star State, after all) and quite a bit of pop. In other words, I hear more Buddy Holly than Hank Williams. If I had to call it anything, I would describe it as pure rock n’ roll. Jack guitarist Gibson Hartwell’s axe up a bit in the mix and add more thud and volume to the pop in drummer Travis Yost’s kick drum and you would see exactly what I mean. So it’s the kind of rock music that can be played from outdoor stages after a sunny day on the river for mixed crowds of kids and parents, fine; we can’t all be groupie-shagging dirtbags cranking up to eleven, can we?
A favorite – besides the overall excellent work of the rhythm section of Yost and double-bassist John Spoorman – is the second track, “Letter to a Bachelor.” This is a fine example of a bittersweet tale of longing and loneliness that doesn’t sink into weepy shmaltz. I am pleased that there isn’t a cheesy ballad to be found, though there certainly are tales of heartbreak that stand alone on the merits of well-delivered words and melody instead of cliché swells of pianos and fiddles. By the time the record closes out with a rousing BANG! courtesy of set closer, “I’ll Never Know Why,” a little recollection and the attentive listener will realize that this stuff deserves to be delivered from bigger stages than Caras Park and the Union Club. Maybe if Tom Catmull could hit the road for a couple years, grow a tight little afro and build himself a surfer body down at the YMCA, he could cash in on some of that Coachella/Sasquatch Festival action! Until then, he and the Clerics can remain Missoula’s Best Band, and Best Kept Secret.
Tom Catmull and the Clerics celebrate the release of Glamour Puss Friday, May 8th, at the Elk’s Club in Missoula. It will probably sell out, so get there early!