Recorded in Austin, with lead BoDeans Kurt Neumann and Sammy Llanas playing everything (except for some horns brought in at the end), Mr. Sad Clown highlights harmonies and exemplifies the band’s ability to write music that is ultimately likable and hummable. No, this one is not a classic for their catalog I didn’t have that expectation, though I would have liked a little of the rock band rawness their live show brings. There is a controlled element to this effort. What they do best live is blend the beauty of their vocal sound with the push of a band that is more greasy than glossy. That’s not this record. What we get hereis a piece of studio work which trades musical looseness for a chance to highlight the sound of two voices who have aged pretty damn well.
Some of those aforementioned horns come in midway through “Stay,” the first cut on the record, and help make a good opener memorable.
There are 15 tracks, and the best combine raggedness with the benefits of more studio patience. “Say Goodbye” grabs like a key cut off one of their early albums. Agospel organ appears early in the song, and the music pumps along behind a chugging bass and some sweet-yet-rough BoDean harmony. Same for “Don’t Fall Down”, which wouldn’t sound out of place on their T-Bone Burnett-produced debut album Love and Hope and Sex and Dreams.
“Headed for the End of the World” could be the best track: It has the urgency and ringing guitar that propels their best songs, like classics “Good Things” or “Runaway”.
Buried near the end of the record, “Feel Lil’ Love” rocks like Cheap Trick. We even get some Smashing Pumpkins (!) influence on “Back Then”.
Throughout the album, there are embellishments found via the freedom of tinkering on their own production: a buried alien keyboard here, glockenspiel-type chiming there, and a variety of guitar styles, including some Duane Eddy twang and a Chuck Berry guitar distortion. Neumann has always been a loud roots-rock guitarist, and that gift pops up in needed spots to lend saw crunch throughout the record
Ballads like “If…” and “Easy Love” take more effort because of their pace, but Sammy’s voice on each has a beautiful yearning. Album closer “Gone X 3” is haunting.
After many years of battling a record company for independence, the band has become downright prolific, with three albums and a couple live releases in less than a decade. When I interviewed Neumann before an Indianapolis appearance last year, he mentioned that more frequent releases was a goal.
There’s nothing wrong with a new BoDeans release. We know they probably aren’t going to make radical departures in sound and tone. We get what we expect, and that’s a good thing. And then we will probably get the opportunity to see them live at The Vogue, where the best songs will findtheir potential, and the rawness and energy that ultimately make the BoDeans viable and memorable will make a return.