Saturday, March 2, 2024

Clover - Clover / Fourty-Niner (1970-71 us, nice rural psych, 2012 remaster)

Clover was a Marin County, California four-piece that formed in the late ‘60s and recorded this pair of albums for Fantasy Records in 1970-71. Their renown, however, stems from later exploits, including the slot as Elvis Costello’s backing band on his 1977 debut, My Aim is True, as well as spinning off Huey Lewis and the News, and launching the solo and songwriting (including Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny”) career of Alex Call. Their original albums didn’t catch on upon initial release, and have been tough to find. Reissued on this two-fer, the performances reveal a band drawing inspiration from both the San Francisco scene and the country-rock wafting up from Los Angeles, and with additional dashes of blues and soul Clover was ready to rock the local clubs and bars.

The albums, like the band’s set list, sprinkled covers (Jr. Walker’s “Shotgun” Rev. Gary Davis’ “If I Had My Way” and a Creedence-styled jam on the spiritual “Wade in the Water” that surely stretched out to fifteen minutes on stage) amid originals that included country, electric blues, and jazz- and funk-rock. The former comes in several varieties, including the traditional-sounding lament “No Vacancy,” Bakersfield-influenced “Monopoly,” Clarence White-styled guitar picking of “Lizard Rock and Roll Band,” and bluegrass “Chicken Butt.” Guitarist John McFree shows off his steel playing on “Howie’s Song,” and drummer Mitch Howie adds funky beats to “Love is Gone.” In the end, Clover was a good band, though not particularly distinct, and their albums provide a reminder of just how deep the bench was in the San Francisco scene.
No Depresion

You know Clover, even if you think you don’t. In 1977, they backed Elvis Costello on My Aim Is True. Later, a slightly altered version of the band became Huey Lewis & the News. Members played with the Doobie Brothers, and also played with the likes of John Prine and Lucinda Williams. This is all to say that Clover has quite the musical pedigree. But before all that, they were their own band, making their own tunes and trying to make a name for themselves as nothing more than the country-soul-rock outfit Clover.

Real Gone Music has collected the band’s first two records – 1970’s Clover and 1971’s Fourty-Niner – together on one disc, and they show a band far removed from the angry power-pop of Costello or the ’80s soul-pop of Lewis & the News. Instead, Clover fell right into the thick of early ’70s, country-tinged rock music. They sounded like a more pop-oriented version of the Band, and their twangy, swampy sound is nothing if not catchy. Clover clocks in at just over a half-hour, and doesn’t waste a minute, fitting in rangy hooks and tight melodies at every turn. Opener “Shotgun” has crunchy, funky guitars and lively vocals that give the song a lean power. Love song “Monopoly” is closer to Flying Burrito Brothers’ turf, but it’s extended metaphor – which is either about government or business practice, it’s hard to tell – is charming even if it doesn’t quite hold together. The most spacious song on the record, “Wade in the Water”, dips into more bluesy sounds, dragging the guitars through the low mud and giving their riffs some space to echo out.

Fourty-Niner takes the taut energy of Clover and eases up a little, giving us a more introspective sound. Even the bouncy pop of “Harvest”, which opens the record, has a soulful, shuffling chorus backed by shadowy organs and built up by bittersweet vocal harmonies. “Keep on Trying” is an R&B-influenced heartbreak tune. The title track is a country-soul jam that gives the vocals room to stretch out and vamp. In fact, the whole record feels looser, more confident than its predecessor, and if that slows the frenetic tempo of the first record, it delves deeper emotionally and we get a better feel for who the band is.

And who the band is might be the main issue for Clover. While these two records are charming and catchy, history has done them no favors. As it stands, these feel like second-tier country-soul records, ones with energy but not much unique personality. As hook-filled as these songs are, those hooks are also often by the numbers. So it’s no real wonder Clover ended up attaching itself to move distinct musical voices later. Make no mistake, these guys can play and play well, and the best parts of these albums do show them playing their hearts out. But too often these two albums feel like exercises, like practicing getting these rock and country-western and soul sounds down perfectly instead of getting the feel of them right. In the end, then, Clover/Fourty-Niner is a pleasant, interesting listen, but in terms of significance it’s little more than a musical footnote, the solid sound of players that went on to play others’ songs better.
by Matthew Fiander / 10 December 2012 
1. Shotgun (Autry DeWalt) - 2:10
2. Southbound Train (Alex Call, John McFee) - 3:38
3. Going To The Country (Alex Call, John Ciambotti) - 2:29
4. Monopoly (John Ciambotti) - 2:00
5. Stealin' (Alex Call, Ed Bogas) - 4:33
6. Wade In The Water (Traditional) - 4:31
7. No Vacancy (John Ciambotti) - 3:09
8. Lizard Rock And Roll Band (Alex Call, Ed Bogas) - 2:57
9. Come (Alex Call) - 3:45
10.Could You Call It Love (Alex Call, John McFee) - 2:30
11.Harvest (Ed Bogas, Johnny Ciambotti) -  2:24
12.Keep On Tryin' (Johnny Ciambotti) - 3:21
13.Old Man Blues (Alex Call) - 3:36
14.Forty-Niner (Alex Call, John Ciambotti) - 2:25
15.Sound Of Thunder (Alex Call) - 2:33
16.Chicken Butt (Alex Call, John McFee, John Ciambotti) - 2:24
17.Mr. Moon (Alex Call) - 2:49
18.Love Is Gone (Alex Call) - 2:31
19.Mitch's Tune (Alex Call, Mitch Howie) - 3:12
20.Sunny Mexico (Alex Call) - 2:06
21.If I Had My Way (Rev. Gary Davis) - 3:07
Tracks 1-10 from "Clover" released 1970
Tracks 11-21 from "Fourty Niner" released 1971

*lex Call - Guitar, Liner Notes, Piano, Vocals
*ohn Ciambotti - Bass, Guiro, Guitar, Vocals
*itch Howie - Drums
*John McFee - Guitar, Organ, Pedal Steel, Piano, Vocals 
*Bruce Campbell - Banjo
*Ed Bogas - Fiddle, Guitar, Marimba, Organ, Piano, Producer