Music

Sly Operators

Clinic Doctor Music's Past

Clinic w/Sons and Daughters, Autolux
Tues Oct 26,
Showbox, 8 pm,
$13 adv./ $15 DOS, all ages.

Clinic hail from Liverpool, where government agencies dole out Beatles songbooks to children by the time they're old enough to read. But the four contrary bastids in Clinic rejected Liverpudlian civic pride and musical history (you'll hear no Echo & the Bunnymen or Teardrop Explodes in their music, either) and instead fell in love with American and Jamaican musicians--and Kraut-rock innovators Can.

Clinic's great accomplishment is creating music that's totally enthralled with the distant past, yet which sounds vibrant, as evidenced by three albums and several EPs that revel in rock, pop, and dub created before Ronald Reagan took office. Bassist/flautist Brian Campbell claims that the band genuinely enjoys no music from the mid-'80s on--not even My Bloody Valentine, if you can believe that.

Despite many sly allusions to classic songs (they are especially fond of Laurie Anderson's "O Superman," Velvet Underground's "European Son," and ? & the Mysterians' "96 Tears"), Clinic have carved out an utterly distinctive sound that's rhythmically propulsive and melodically poignant. Their songs toggle between sinisterly urgent pulsators that nod to Suicide's "Ghost Rider" and waltzy, lugubrious ballads that wallow in misery with the pathos of John Barry's "Midnight Cowboy Theme" (see especially "Falstaff" on the new Winchester Cathedral).

Clinic are one of the most baffling paradoxes operating today: a band who reference so many other artists' songs, they emerge with a unique output. Sure, their albums are retro and trainspotters' paradises, but they somehow elude the deadening tedium that afflicts other bands in love with musicians who peaked during the Vietnam War.

Beginning life in 1997, Clinic--Ade Blackburn (keyboards, melodica, vocals), Hartley (guitar, clarinet, keyboards), Carl Turney (drums, piano, backing vocals), and Campbell--decided to don hospital garb onstage to refute of the cult of personality that infests most rock music. Ironically, the ploy came off as something of a gimmick and probably resulted in the group drawing more media attention. But, to this day, Clinic wear scrubs and surgical masks.

Similarly, their album artwork eschews band photos and even the members' names. Instead, Clinic devote the space to paying homage to old LP covers and to cryptic collages that both critique and fetishize popular culture. The cover of Winchester Cathedral features a silhouetted hand vainly trying to block the sun--or perhaps it's attempting to clutch its light. There's something oddly hopeful and pessimistic about the photo. This ambivalence permeates the album's music as well.

Critics have been accusing Clinic of repeating themselves on Cathedral, but while there are many similarities and few radical deviations from past albums, in this case stasis is a good thing. Change for its own sake isn't necessarily beneficial, and if a formula works as well as Clinic's does, why tamper with it?

Winchester Cathedral begins with "Country Mile," in which an EKG meter beeps progressively faster until it flat-lines. It's a witty joke at Clinic's own expense, perhaps, but they prove again that their vital signs are as strong as ever on this record. Welcome trademarks abound: fiery melodica flourishes; dramatically beautiful chord progressions; insistent guitar ostinatos; turbulent piano vamps; rhythms that throb with the tension of a perpetually thwarted suitor's member; Ade Blackburn's brittle, boyish vocals; threatening tambourine hits; and an eerie, bruised aura that gives Clinic's serpentine rock weight. Overall, there's slightly less velocity and more melancholy on Cathedral than on 2000's Internal Wrangler and 2002's Walking with Thee (call it maturity, if you wish), but the results are as compelling as ever.

Clinic's tunes still haunt with a vividly dark and bruised minor-key palette. So while there may be slightly less energy and more refinement on Cathedral than previously, Clinic have improved their attractively askew melodic gifts, adding some sweetness to their usually acerbic venom. They imbue that most genteel of forms, the waltz, with a sinisterness that's more Suicide's walk on the wild side than Johann Strauss' stroll through Vienna. Clinic's rhythms possess an effortless glide or a tense skank that signifies dub without getting all pedantic and reverent about it.

So, yeah, the critics are kinda right: Clinic have three song templates. But, jayzus, what song templates they are. These fat-free tunes retain the power to move you bodily and emotionally like few rock bands in civilian clothing can manage. Some might even say it's just what the doctor ordered.

segal@thestranger.com

 

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