Cold As The Clay is Graffin’s tribute to old-time American folk music, and it contains six covers of traditional songs as well as five originals, for which he enlisted the very capable musicians from The Weakerthans to back him up, that offer similar lyrical depictions of American life as it used to be. The lazy slide guitar and rhythm section provide a solid foundation for the songs, but the juxtaposition of lo-fi and slick production values is akin to someone bringing a boombox onto a porch and disrupting a sewing circle. Graffin’s wispy, laidback singing is a major shift from his passionate, harmony-heavy vocals for Bad Religion, whose songs are carried by the rancor and rasp in Graffin’s voice. Cold As The Clay‘s originals lack the vocal attack that invigorates Bad Religion songs, the opening of “The Watchmaker’s Dial” being a notable exception: “Oh, yonder stands the prophet/The words are music to our ears/But down among the sinners/Only pain and sweat and tears/The sermon soothes the simple/But the rest are rapt with fear.” But while this and the opening track, “Don’t Be Afraid To Run,” are enjoyable, they mostly made me wish I were listening to Bad Religion or The Weakerthans instead. The traditionals are charming, but for a songwriter as gifted as Graffin, they seem like filler.
I live in the same town as Greg Graffin, which affords me the luxury of stumbling upon him about once a year. In one chance encounter, I found him in a sporting goods store, wearing shorts, jogging shoes, and knee-high striped socks, which, as a fan, is about as jarring as it is to hear him sing “Let’s keep a-lovin’ Jesus” on “Talk About Suffering.” From comments Graffin makes in the liner notes about showing how his work with Bad Religion was informed by other genres, it seems that he anticipates an audience who is already aware of his punk legacy. Cold As The Clay is such a major departure from Bad Religion that it’s unlikely that hordes of teenage punk followers will embrace this mellow offering. But if recording a bunch of old-timey jams is what he needs to do to keep making great punk records, his fans are likely to be as forgiving as the good Lord is.