Song of the day – 300: The Clean (mini-live review)
Damn. Shaking from the exertion of being on stage with The Deadnotes, feeling like my chest might explode, I bump into Hamish Kilgour at the side of the stage.
“I really enjoyed that,” he says. “It was great to hear some edgy post-punk. I hope you don’t mind me saying, but it reminded me of ATV crossed with The Laughing Clowns.” No. No, I don’t mind you saying that at all, Hamish. Go right ahead.
So all the hipsters were just round the corner, watching the Letterman-endorsed Best Coast. And all the grunge-heads were down the road, watching Eddie Vedder. Well. The grunge-heads and the hipsters missed out, that’s all I can say. Or maybe they didn’t? Not my call. All I know is that tonight is magical indeed. First time The Clean have played Australia in 22 years. That might be a lie, but if so it’s a great lie. And I like the description of the Dunedin band as “the Velvet Underground of the South Pacific” except – to some of us – The Clean are far more special. Ask Spiral Stairs (ex-Pavement), standing to my left. “I always seem to catch The Clean at weird, pivotal moments in my life,” he says. “In New York, immediately following 9/11, In QLD, with … ” Wait. What’s Spiral doing here? Pavement have never been slow in admitting their fondness, their debt to this most gentle, most abrasive of inventive guitar bands, THE ONES WHO DEFINED THE DUNEDIN SOUND for those born too late to appreciate little except MGMT and Yo La Tengo. I’m not questioning Spiral’s devotion, only his location. Meanwhile, the anticipation of coruscating guitar swirls around us like a heady head of steam from a hookah. I doubt if there’s a single person here who undervalues The Clean’s beauty, their vivid guitar storms punctuated by trebly guitar excess and bursts of down-home, deprecating humour.
It’s a fine evening. Humid but no overbearing, despite Robert Scott’s protests. Humid but never sweltering. Melbourne is Melbourne, and that’s swell. Sydney has its moments for sure. But, as The Thin Kids sing, “If you were from Brisbane you would have some decent taste/Or at least a decent band to call your own”. Damn. Those Thin Kids. On the money as always. Tonight, Brisbane has two decent bands to call its own. Blank Realm create great swirling whooshes and psychedelic buzzes of noise: guitar layering on guitar, smouldering keyboards and stone age drums: somewhere the guitar calls out in wastrel abandon and two or three voices answer it back. Damn, Blank Realm have grown into a proper band. Some would have them the finest live band in Australia currently. Must be into the psychedelia, the repetition, the pulsating groove. Me, too. Don’t know if I’d make such a grandiose claim but … damn. It’s only 8.15pm and already the joint in jumpin’, the chicks and the beatnik cats groovin’.
The Clean are. It’s hard to put into words the sheer visceral pleasure of their sound: I thought I’d grown tired of underground guitar rock a while ago. I was wrong. Oh, so wrong. Guitars lilt and pummel. Three-part harmonies come shooting through, on ‘Factory Girl’ and elsewhere. ‘Whatever I Do It’s Right’, ‘At The Bottom’, ‘Tally Ho’, ‘Beatnik’ … every song is a familiar, slightly befuddled, sardonic old friend come to chide and convince you that perhaps somewhere you went wrong, with your fancy four-to-the-floor beats and collection of White Stripes B-sides. If the Velvet Underground comparison sticks it’s only because 30 years ago The Clean were the last band to move along the VU template convincingly and few – if any – have managed since.
So if you did miss out, you don’t have to miss out.
This is where it all began. The song that triggered the formation of one of the Great Record Labels of the past three decades.
Here’s what I wrote for The Vine last year, when I was struggling to get to grips with the beauty of The Clean’s most recent album, Mister Pop.
It’s unfortunate, the reliance that record companies have upon trumpeting the influence their ‘seminal’ charges have had upon other bands. Unintentionally, it helps to devalue the music contained therein, as if it can’t be judged on its own terms. Loud and clear, the sample product sticker on my copy of The Clean’s new album states: integral part of underground music… last couple of decades… Pavement… Yo La Tengo… Songs… Panel Of Judges
Slightly higher above that is a sticker that boasts: First new album by New Zealand pop legends THE CLEAN in 8 years!
Now, both statements happen to be true. There’s no denying that many bands in the past three decades have drawn – to a lesser or (in Yo La Tengo’s case) greater degree – on elements of The Clean’s sound. And it is true that, by working backwards, you can probably figure out what made Hamish and David Kilgour’s Dunedin pop band so special in the first place.
1. Twisted, smart pop sensibilities with a solid, beating heart? Check. (See any number of songs on Mister Pop, but particularly the nostalgia-leaning, understated ebullience of ‘Back In The Day’, which spills into shreds of feedback and conversation towards the end; and The Go-Betweens style imagery of the blue-collar ‘Factory Man’ – The Clean, of course, being early peers to Brisbane’s finest.)
2. Slight Krautrock influence in the churning, repetitive beat? Check. (See the Neu!-esque patterns and mood changes of ‘Moon Jumper’, a song that could also be mistaken for any from Yo La Tengo’s last four albums. In fairness, Yo La Tengo help provide the music to much of Mister Pop.)
3. A post-Velvet Underground suburban sprawl of simple, effective chord sequences and dazzling washes of keyboard? Check. (This criteria applies to a lot of The Clean’s output over their various incarnations and reformations – from the early EPs in the early 80s, where they defined ‘the Dunedin sound’, and spawned The Chills, The Bats, Bailter Space and The Gordons, among others; to their album-led 90s output wrongly overshadowed by US peers; to this latest. For example, ‘Tensile’.)
4. The occasional psychedelic haze? Check. (Most definitely the ’60s tribute, ‘In The Dreamlife U Needs A Rubber Soul’, and the square-baiting ‘Are You Really On Drugs?’. The Chills made their debut UK release on Alan McGee’s Creation Records in the mid-’80s, right when he was at the height of his love affair with the later work of The Byrds and Love – they slotted right in. Many of us couldn’t understand why The Clean weren’t lined up right there alongside them. [Might have been because they’d split up at that point? – Ed] On ‘Simple Fix’, birds twitter over plucked acoustic guitars, a gorgeous piano, the sound of water running and an echoed click-track: the opening track ‘Loog’, with its female vocal, is pure late 80s Bailter Space… or The Clean, if you will.)
5. Noisy, melodic pop that’s influenced everyone from The Feelies to Galaxie 500, Camper Van Beethoven to The Clientele? Check. (Oh wait, now I’m doing it. Bugger it. Well, check, anyway. See ‘Asleep In The Tunnel’ for a great example of the type of song The Clean have always done so well.)
Like their comrades-in-arms The Bats, who made a welcome return this year with the charming dream-pop of The Guilty Office, Mister Pop sounds as good as pretty much any album ever released on Flying Nun, which means it’s pretty much as good as this music gets. Pretty fucking good.
Amazingly, this is only the fifth album The Clean have released in their 32-year ‘career’. Let’s hope it’s not the last.
All videos courtesy of Eternal Soundcheck.
The Deadnotes + The Legend!
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by Everett True
My name is Everett True. I am a music critic. This is what I do. I criticise music. The clue is in my job description – music critic. I do not consider myself a journalist, as I do not research or report hard news. I do not consider myself a commentator as I believe that everyone should be a participant. I criticise people and in return I am not surprised if other people criticise me. It is part of the whole deal of being in the public arena. I am Everett True. Believe in me and I have power like a God. Quit believing in me and I no longer exist.