Release Date: January 29, 2013
After going five years without releasing an album, and nine years without playing a show, chimerical rock supergroup Tomahawk (mems. Faith No More, Jesus Lizard, Battles) have finally released Oddfellows, the final piece to their career-summarizing 2012 vinyl box Eponymous to Anonymous. To say that releasing a box set with an empty space for Oddfellows — an LP meant to follow 2001’s self-titled debut, 2003’s glorious weirdo smash Mit Gas and 2007’s Anonymous — was presumptuous would be unnecessarily harsh. After all, the 13 tracks on Oddfellows, Tomahawk’s fourth album and first with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn, certainly fit within the context of the band’s broader mission — that is, to shatter the mold of modern rock (and, to a lesser extent, metal) with a torrent of influences that are symptomatic of guitarist Duane Denison’s aggro-twang and vocalist Mike Patton’s militant eclecticism.
Still, despite Tomahawk’s insistence that this record and its subsequent tour aren’t a mere reunion, Oddfellows is a somewhat lukewarm return, an album that seems less convinced of its ability to save rock from its own predictability than most of Tomahawk’s previous output.
Oddfellows is by no means a bad or even boring album: As with most Patton-associated projects and all Tomahawk records, Oddfellows presents a tide of ideas, information, and intrigue. “Baby Let’s Play ______” twists slinking Spaghetti Western sounds through sinister lounge-y vocals. “White Hats/Black Hats” builds from a base of industrial menace, but hinges on a chorus that seems prefabricated for some glam-rock crooner. “Rise Up Dirty Waters” mimics its calliope keyboard melody with Dunn’s nimble bass playing, slinking like ruminative Tom Waits before erupting into a thrash-rap that’s, well, “Epic.” There are programmed beats and onomatopoeic vocal stunts from Patton, misdirection mixing borrowed from dub, and strangling guitars that nod to the noise world. And the band is pretty nice, too: Battles/ex-Helmet drummer John Stanier is a dynamo of versatility, equally capable with the Bonham-sized shatters that open the album and the soft Elvin Jones touches he adds in its middle. Much the same holds for both Dunn and Denison, the once-again ex-Jesus Lizard guitarist who volleys quickly between razor-wire post-punk shards and viscous rock riffs. Patton is, of course, Patton, a vocalist who never dreamed up an affectation he wouldn’t try, a bandleader who behaves like a sugar-high kid on an ornate playground.
That attention-deprived mentality is the major hurdle that Oddfellows only occasionally overcomes. Time and again, Tomahawk offset some of the album’s best moments by acting uncomfortable with them. The flimsy hook of “White Hats/Black Hats” subsumes the Ministry wallop that the verses promise. On the other hand, the quartet seem almost embarrassed with the size and strength of its own Foo Fighters-like hook during “Stone Letter.” They undercut it with goofy music-theater verses and a bridge that aims for scary but lands squarely on silly. It would be much more interesting to hear what Tomahawk could accomplish within those Grohl-sized confines, not around them.
Though Oddfellows does its best to twist art rock with modern rock, this quartet’s at its best when it goes purely for the strange and experimental. Dunn and Stanier mount tension with trebly bass and barely-there percussion during “I Can Almost See Them,” with Denison adding pillows of ambience beneath Patton’s lugubrious creep. Likewise, “A Thousand Eyes” finds a surprising middle ground between Ennio Morricone and Shellac, teasing the rock eruptions of the latter but smartly clinging to the temperament of the latter. Tomahawk smartly refuses to release the geyser of anxiety, at least until the clumsy successor, “Rise Up Dirty Waters.” Paired with some of Patton’s best singing here, the jazz lurk at the start of “Rise Up” beckons like a bony finger curling in the mist. But the full band springs into a Faith No More-style onslaught only to return to the intro’s séance. The pieces just don’t fit.
When they do coalesce, however, Tomahawk suggests the vitality and forcefulness of those first three records. On Oddfellows, that happens exactly twice: The opening title track is a Melvins-ready wallop that wrangles Tomahawk’s itinerant quirks, including Patton’s percussive glossolalia and Stanier’s meticulous rhythmic shifts, all within the context of the song. “South Paw” successfully triples as a rock anthem, hilarious send-up, and stylistic crucible. Alternately slinking along like Sonic Youth and chugging ahead like Queens of the Stone Age, Tomahawk arrives at a crest of a chorus. “You rubbed me so wrong,” Patton sings, his voice unfettered above a simplistic chainsaw riff. “Please keep your clothes on.” On the surface, it’s big, dumb, and fun; just beneath, there’s an improbably complicated band at work, showing its hand only on repeated listens. In both instances, Tomahawk manages to fuck with modern rock mores by disrupting — but not interrupting — them.