Producing Clutch is an “ain’t broke, don’t fix it “proposition. Over the past quarter century, these Maryland road dogs have gradually honed a sturdy, compact sound that’s immune to drastic change: bluesy, riff-centric hard rock with hints of psychedelia and punk, topped off by the gravelly roar of wildly charismatic frontman Neil Fallon. So it’s fitting that the band’s first-time meet-up with A-list Nashville producer Vance Powell (who has worked with everyone from Jack White to LeAnn Rimes, and won a Grammy for engineering and mixing Chris Stapleton’s Traveller) on their 12th LP results mainly in minor tweaks rather than large-scale overhaul.
The collaboration peaks on “In Walks Barbarella,” where Powell highlights the group’s already-foregrounded funky tendencies with blasts of brass. The horns blend beautifully with the strutting groove laid down by guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster, and help turn the track — with its typically surreal “DEFCON tractor beams/Weaponized funk” refrain from Fallon — into an instant shout-along.
There are a few other bells and whistles here, including honky-tonk piano on “Vision Quest,” and spacey, Black Keys–esque treatments sprinkled in discreetly throughout. But mostly Book of Bad Decisions is another solid latter-day Clutch record, bathed in the grit and liberal fuzz tone that have made their live shows legendary. “How to Shake Hands,” a broad political satire set to raucous, hard-charging riffs, is an obvious standout in the tried-and-true mold of 2015’s Psychic Warfare and 2013’s Earth Rocker. And as usual, Fallon constantly impresses with his range and wit, whether he’s declaiming preacher-like on “Gimme the Keys” and “Sonic Counselor,” adding crucial doses of melody to downtempo tracks like “Spirit of ’76” and “Emily Dickinson,” or spinning a straightforward crab-cake recipe into lyrical gold on shimmying old-school rocker “Hot Bottom Feeder.”
Clutch albums can overstay their welcome, and that includes this one. Tracks like “Weird Times” and “Ghoul Wrangler” aren’t so much weak as redundant, overshadowed by the album’s more distinctive moments — Book of Bad Decisions might have been a stronger 40-minute album than the nearly hour-long 15-track helping that it is. But it does what it needs to, reminding Clutch fans how committed Fallon, Sult, Maines and Gaster are to their single-minded craft, while offering up a few prime candidates for future live staples. In a time when the band’s brand of trend-proof rock is in exceedingly short supply, dependability like this is worth a raised glass or 10.