Agony Shorthand

Monday, February 24, 2003
THE CLEAN “ANTHOLOGY”….Best reissue of 2003 so far would have to be the 2-CD Anthology from “New Zealand sound” standard-bearers THE CLEAN, just out on US label Merge Records. This is a big boost for those who may have missed the somewhat difficult-to-find Compilation from 15 or so years ago, as well as far those unacquainted with the absolute best kiwi space fuzz-pop trio ever. It’s a terrific package – one disc of the early 1980-82 stuff, and a second disc of their reunion material from 1989-96. I saw them play a bunch of this stuff live on their US tour 18 months ago and it was so well done I though I’d stumbled into the Canterbury University Social Club circa 1981. People who fall for the 80s/90s New Zealand/Flying Nun bands tend to wax rhapsodic about them in a manner akin to speaking in tongues. While I certainly enjoy the stuff, I never saw the individual bands as interchangeable, despite the similarities in sound (think soaring, distorted, often keyboard-heavy pop played with a wink of knowing naiveté). Tall Dwarfs were excellent, as was/is solo Chris Knox. The Chills? The Verlaines? Sure, whatever. It’s fine. There were plenty of NZ bands creating bizarre inner worlds of pop-rooted sound outside the brackets of the Flying Nun mafia who were arguably far more inventive – Bill Direen & The Builders, Shoes This High and the Victor Dimisich Band for instance – I say arguably because you can bet I’ll be the one doing the arguing very soon, right here on this web site! That’s what I’m here for, folks.

Anyway, The Clean. Disc one is truly an anthology aimed at us completists – you get the debut “Tally Ho / Platypus” 45 (which was an actual charting hit in New Zealand), the “Boodle Boodle Boodle” EP, the “Great Sounds Great…” EP, the “Getting Older / Scrap Music / Whatever I Do Is Right” 45, and another five tracks – every last one of them a testament to a truly unique and groundbreaking band. For these 3 years The Clean wrote one classic song after another, informed as much by 60s pop and the Velvet Underground as their own vision, without any direct copping of riffs & chops. Tracks like “Beatnik” hum with a dense wash of Modern Lovers-style keyboards and sing-songy vocals, while there are also edgier, somewhat darker instrumental numbers like “Fish” and “At The Bottom” that are a showcase for this trio’s ability to easily set the mood of their choosing. And the so-called “naiveté” – I don’t know, how can one not find the ending of “Slug Song” charming, where vocalist/guitarist David Kilgour announces “goodbye” to the studio as the song fades? Excellent stuff. Disc two is still the same band, but a few years removed from their classic era – it’s pretty good Olympia/Slumberland-style pop, but their edge has been dulled and I’m afraid nothing particularly jumps out (I had the same reaction when I heard the comeback album Vehicle upon its release). Who knows, you might find this stuff to be superior – they’re certainly still catchy enough to be someone’s favorite band. Obviously they can make it sound great live. Kudos to the band and to Merge for putting together the perfect overview.