Clatter's first release, Blinded by Vision, was new territory for me. Combining melodic basslines with heavy distortion and powerful female vocals, it took former rhythm instruments and brought them forward. It's a solid album, with a few standout songs, so I had high hopes for Clatter's newest album, Monarch. For the most part, I'm not disappointed.
First, a note about the album's packaging: like Blinded by Vision, Monarch comes in a cardboard-and-plastic sleeve instead of a jewel case. Unlike that album, when you order it from Clatter directly, it comes with a few extras. The band has become increasingly green these last few years, and they've decided to not only advocate for global warming reform with their packaging materials, but they also include a monarch butterfly sanctuary kit, with information about the insects and seeds that will attract them on their migration patterns. It's a nice gesture.
But how's the music? For this release, Amy Humphrey (bass, vocals) has added a twelve-string bass to her toolkit, in addition to the ringing Rickenbacker that she had used before. You can really hear the drone strings in the bass sound, since they produce a much thicker, guitar-like distortion. In fact, this is a much more produced album in almost every way: there are added vocal harmonies by Humphrey, the occassional synth in the background, and speech samples integrated into the songs. It's not impossible to imagine that Clatter will play these live, since they've traditionally used a click track and sampler for backups. But at times the extra production does seem gratuitous, or even garish: "For Her" is a great Franz Ferdinand-like dance track, but it's marred by a clumsy dialog sketch dropped into the bridge.
In a lot of ways, that lack of subtlety is Monarch's biggest weakness. "House of Trouble," for example, rails against global warming skeptics and the Bush administration, and it doesn't hesitate to drive its point home. There's also a cover of Rush's "Limelight" that's surprisingly well-executed considering the difference in instrumentation. Humphrey's voice seems stronger this time around, but she's still not a singer with a great emotional range. Joe Hayes' drumming, however, continues to fill the space behind the bass without being obnoxious--say what you like about the choice of instrumentation, these two can lock into a tight groove together.
All in all, Monarch is a good album, but I'm not sure there are any standouts that I'm going to enjoy as much as Blinded by Vision. Its best songs, "House of Trouble," "For Her," and "Somewhere Inside" are more consistent, but there's less experimentation (there's nothing quite as distinctive as the auto-wah bassline of "Center Line," for example). I hesitate to call this a sophomore slump, but I'm definitely looking forward to what Clatter will do next. In the meantime, listen to the samples and see if it's to your taste--for non-bassists and more conventional listeners, Monarch might well be a better fit.