Claude VonStroke: Bird Brain

Bird Brain, Claude VonStroke's follow-up to his 2006 debut album Beware of The Bird and his recent Fabric mix, brings with it ample promise. The man otherwise known as Barclay Crenshaw has previously shown a fun and cheeky side (e.g., the 2005 cut “Deep Throat”) and such light-heartedness is certainly welcome in a field that can take itself too seriously.

There's no question Bird Brain, which was inspired by Crenshaw's San Francisco home base (as evidenced by track titles such as “Bay Area” and “California,” a booty-shaking collaboration with J Phlip), starts strongly, with “Monster Island” an especially fine opener. Crenshaw builds the near-tribal groove into an infectious burner and, in keeping with the track's title, adds menacing horn tones that suggest a ship making its way through the mist towards King Kong's home turf, the crew members unaware of the dangers ahead. Crenshaw is clearly a deft hand at crafting thumping club beats, as the springy house pulse in “Vocal Chords” proves. The track also showcases his production skills to good effect, with a vocal fragment cleverly multipled until it becomes a veritable roller-coaster ride. There's no doubting his sincerity either, with the producer himself stating, “Whether you like this album or not, there is no fake funk in this project. This is music from my heart.”

There are some memorable moments and some let-downs too. Armed with ample vocal tomfoolery, “Beat That Bird” (“I'll beat that bird with a bat”), VonStroke's co-production with Justin Martin, features the kind of wackiness one hears in Luke Vibert's Wagon Christ material too. The clubby house raver “Storm on Lake St. Claire” proves ear-catching too, less for its thunder noises and more for its tight tribal pulse (it's hard, though, not to think of Samin's “Heater” when that squiggly accordion-like sound appears). VonStroke tucks the beats away for the short, lullaby-like outro “Jasper's Baby Robot”—a pretty cut but one of minor significance. Bouyed by a deep bass throb, “Aundy” sprinkles its atmospheric house pulse with electric piano to mildly arresting effect. Bass legend Bootsy Collins adds grunts, yelps, and vocal shoutouts (“If the funk gets too hot for your rump / Turn the other cheek, mama”) to “The Greasy Beat” but little else.

Gradually it becomes apparent that Bird Brain is primarily about loose jams whose quirkiness makes them passably engaging but little more. It's funky for sure and its cheekiness is both endearing and refreshing but one can't help but feel that Crenshaw's capable of more, and the project ultimately feels like somewhat of a missed opportunity.

November 2009