AB Clyde and the Kitty Litters – Muscle Beach
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One of the most interesting things about AB Clyde’s songwriting is how difficult it is getting a clear bead on his intentions. Many people listening to this album will likely think they’ve gotten a grasp of his comic intentions before he quickly upends their expectations. His turn into more serious material will startle others. Pure, willful adventurousness can help performers and their work often overcome or mitigate their weaknesses. AB Clyde isn’t content to maintain one line of attack over the fifteen songs on Muscle Beach, but he is guilty of revisiting certain territory with wearying frequency. The good songs on this album deserve to bring it attention, but its unpredictability is equally responsible for many highlights.
The first great track on Muscle Beach, “Why Won’t You Make Love?”, has a gentle swing and melodies that will stick in listener’s memories. There’s a decided country music influence here and elsewhere on the album, but at its best, it’s never cheap pastiche. There’s a sense of attentive construction on a track like this that we’ll encounter elsewhere. “Drinkin’ in the Dark” is Muscle Beach’s first serious track, even with a couple of nods in a darkly comic direction, but Clyde never plays it as some gritty soul-bearing confession. Instead, he maintains a theatrical distance from the material while still managing to invest it with considerable feeling and sensitivity. The title track, “Muscle Beach”, creates an interesting contrast between the confrontational, arrogant lyric and almost fragile musical backing. It’s clear that Clyde wants to communicate insecurity, but others are likely to arrive at different interpretations. It’s one of the album’s best examples of Clyde’s songwriting taking on a depth that similar efforts can’t touch.
“Billy Blaine” is a streamlined, pointed piece of songwriting that makes a big impact thanks to its relaxed musical confidence and well-thought out story. Clyde’s writing gives listeners strong characterizations as well and the band plays in lock-step behind him. “Little Miss Snow White” has a nice, seductive mood from the outset and Clyde shows off the needed vocal skill to match the backing. The bluesy flavor of this track is a refreshing musical turn and gives the album a needed jolt near its conclusion. He hits one of the album’s high water marks with “Railroad Buddies”, another character study in the vein of “Billy Blaine”, but with a profoundly darker mood than any other song on the album. It draws further attention thanks to his cunning decision to fuse this bleak lyric to a jaunty musical performance, but Clyde’s singing is equally memorable. Clyde concludes the album, perhaps unexpectedly, with “Outside”, a startlingly straight, if a little clichéd, reflection on childhood. There’s a great deal of sentimentality here, but Clyde and the band avoid hinging their performances on stressing those qualities and it helps keep the mood tolerable. It’s an unexpectedly beautifully settled end to a restless album.
Some of the wide-eyed thrill derived from hearing Clyde’s first album is lost here. The album needed pared back to 12 songs, at most, to reach those heights. The good news, however, is that Clyde’s fall isn’t steep. In fact, it doesn’t play like a fall at all, but rather a slip in an otherwise unbroken ascent.
8 out of 10 stars