By Joseph Hawkins
To me, there are a few different kinds of records. This applies to every artist, including those of my most favorites. There are the ones that I frequently listen to front to back. Some records I listen to and can recognize it as a turning point in the artist’s development. Some are albums with great potential but aren’t as cohesive as they could be. Clover by Michael Barrow & the Tourists is a good, solid album, mostly falling into that second category. It demonstrates handily the band’s abilities and future potential to create phenomenal art, while also leaving the door open for growth as a group in a few different directions, depending on their vision as a band.
Michael Barrow & the Tourists (MB&T for short) was originally Michael Barrow’s solo project. Barrow is the band’s singer, and back in 2016 he had a bunch of brand-spanking new music to record. So The Tourists were added: Reed Perkins as drummer; Alessandro Improta as bassist; and Zachary Collier on keys (they’ve had a few different iterations of lead guitar players, but the core of the group has remained the same). At some point during the recording process a decision was made, and The Tourists became a permanent fixture.
MB&T are best known for their blend of Folk/Americana, Blues, and Pop/Rock music. But they’re also known for their stage banter, which generally includes bad puns, dad jokes, and strangely misworded statements (you’ll have to go see them live to know what I mean). Most of their discography I’d classify as “sad” music, but that doesn’t make it despairing or downcast. Clover, their second full length LP, is a fantastic example of this. Some of the songs that slap the hardest on the whole album are the saddest ones disguised as upbeat bangers.
And that’s what I love about MB&T in general. They never seem to shy away from letting the emotion of the moment lead the music and leave the lyrics to tell the underlying story. There’s a reason their Spotify bio describes Barrow, their main lyricist, as the “happiest sad guy you know.” Enjoy a sampler of one liners such as:
“I can’t speak
The ocean in my lungs is way too deep
And there’s a desert on my tongue”
“My girlfriend’s getting married
But not to me”
“When loneliness is fine
Heartbreak starts to feel like home”
Most of these aren’t sung or sonically surrounded in a way to indicate an overwhelming depression, and that’s the key to MB&T’s art. I, for one, am a fan and have been for a while. There’s nothing inherently flowery with how Barrow writes, but the pedestrian nature of it keeps it feeling human and raw, without straying into the blasé.
The production overall on the record is also head and shoulders above their previous releases. Fun easter-egg type sound effects, catchy hooks, punchy drums and clean-cut sounding recording all run rampant (in a good way). You can’t help but dance along to it while you listen, even while seated. It sounds rich and full. Even seemingly basic instrumentation is used effectively, and for the most part, each choice feels intentional or purposeful in its given context. It’s clear a lot of time and love went into these songs to make and keep them sonically interesting, and the payoff is rewarding as a longtime listener of the band.
So where does this record have room for improvement? Well, at times Clover can feel disjointed. Three predominant musical styles prevail: Pop Rock, Blues Rock, and Folk/Americana. I love records that blend multiple stylistic choices together, so this isn’t an inherent problem. But at times, it feels as though the band was unsure of which direction to really lean into. That means instead of the record being incredibly cohesive across the board, there’s the feeling of “I’m listening to 2 or 3 different EP’s here.” It does serve to make it clear that MB&T could choose to go in any number of directions musically, but it’s now left to them to decide what their musical identity will become.
The greater struggle, however, comes with key moments where certain arrangement or instrumental choices feel a bit odd. A few tracks, such as “Clover” and “Y.O.U.” are phenomenal sounding songs, but the solo sections feel twice as long as is needed for the song’s progression to keep pushing forward, especially in a Pop/Rock context. Some other lead guitar moments on the album feel tonally out of place, not quite sitting right with the song or the atmosphere of the rest of the band, or without a strong melodic purpose.
With both critiques, I’m not saying “throw it out and start again” but rather, “it’s getting there, now keep trimming the fat.” It’s obvious this band is on the right track, and are so, so close to breaking into a new stratosphere of musicality and artistic vision.
Clover overall is a rather enjoyable record. It does have a few weaknesses, but no art is or can be perfect. What does remain, though, is a pivotal stepping stone for a band with ideas who are poised to nail their next execution. For me, the title track is the quintessential view into what this project is all about. It’s catchy, well produced, lyrically clever, feels fantastic to listen to, while never feeling insincere or disingenuous. I avidly anticipate Michael Barrow & the Tourist’s next chapter and expect music of epic proportions to come.
Make sure to follow Michael Barrow & the Tourists on Instagram and listen to “Clover” below!