Saturday, October 1, 2005

Records In Review: The Clean--Anthology

The Clean were just about the first post-punk band to emerge from New Zealand in the late '70s. This 2003 2cd Anthology compiles the 3-piecer's early eps, some extras, and selections from their late-'80s and mid-'90s albums. That's a lotta Clean! The allmusic entry on them is a dizzying array of comings, goings, stops, starts and side-projects. Read slowly.

You can hear a lot of influences on these 46 (mostly very short) tracks, and also a lot of elements that must surely have influenced other bands down the line. Input: I seem to hear New Order/Joy Division everywhere these days, but Wire is particularly present, and I can pick up pretty direct references to Chairs Missing and 154 on songs like "Getting Older" and "Sad-Eyed Lady." "At The Bottom" sounds a lot like "B" from the first Colin Newman album, as well. Some of the vocals (all three of the bandmembers sing, including brothers Hamish and David Kilgour, so don't ask me who's who) are even delivered in a Newmanesque manner . Output: the poppier side of their earlier material could well be a direct ancestor of Yo La Tengo (organs abound) and even Jesus and Mary Chain, and the wall-of-sound/drone stuff is a precursor to Stereolab.

Disc one comprises all of the material from their first incarnation (up to 1982) and, while I won't say it's better, it's more interesting because you can sense the band figuring things out as they go along. Their first single "Tally Ho" and the subsequent ep Boodle, Boodle, Boodle (don't ask me) are really impressive, and Boodle in particular is remarkable sounding for a four-track recording of the period. The music here is in the punky vein with the vocals being more "public" and prominent than on later releases. The chorus of "Thumbs Off," for example, could be sung along to down at the pub. "Point That Thing Somewhere Else" points the way toward the drone sound that would become their bread and butter. The Good Sounds Good... ep is quite experimental in terms of production and schizophrenic in terms of material, with some punky stuff ("Beatnik"), some drony jangle-pop (the excellent "Flowers") and even a ska-like organ song ("Slug Song"). The remainder of the disc is singles and odds 'n' sods, the most notable being the single "Getting Older," which, along with b-side "Whatever I Do It's Right" really drives and compares stylistically to something like The Chameleons, albeit with--you guessed it--organs!

Disc two is selections from the first three albums of the reassembled group, along with some outtakes of marginal value. The songs from 1989's Vehicle are quick, driving pop songs with fairly static 3-piece instrumentation. It's the only acoustic guitar-free session, and the electrics are often un(der)distorted and ringy in the '80s jangle-pop tradition. Once again, New Order is present in songs like "Someone" and the catchy "Diamond Shine." The six tracks from 1994's Modern Rock are considerably different, with the acoustic guitar coming back, organ front-and-centre, and the material slower and more drone-like. "Outside The Cage," like aspects of the other songs, is very Stereolab. There's some busier arrangements here, too, like "Linger Longer," which even makes use of some mallet percussion. Which of these sessions you prefer is really a matter of taste only, as they're both good in different ways. The tracks from 1996's Unknown Country indicate a band in search of material. Lots of interesting sounds, arrangements and flavours, but the songs--some of them instrumental--are as undeveloped vignettes, which is a criticism that could be made of the band in general. "Twist Top" is a nice pop tune, though.

This is a lot of material to go through, but it's definitely worth the effort...not that it really is one. The curious thing about The Clean is how their music washes over you, despite the songs being for the most part in the three-minute range. I think this is probably because they're really about band dynamic and procedure, rather than songwriting per se; in fact, you can skip the last thirty seconds of many songs and not miss anything structurally important. So, put either disc on, do the dishes or some light house-cleaning, and enjoy.