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The opening of the Ronettes' 1963 "Be My Baby" can be heard a thousand times without ever losing its bite. Über-session drummer Hal Blaine's simple, commanding Boom! Boom-boom SNAP! Boom! Boom-boom SNAP! rivets your attention, gets your blood racing in anticipation of the inevitable BLAM! it leads into. How else to follow rock's greatest introduction but with a dense, delirious blast of sound?
It's a lesson plenty of folks have learned: Mid-Eighties Britrockers the Jesus and Mary Chain earned their cult by taking that combination (down to the last SNAP!) to the bank. So it would have been reasonable to expect a similar classicism from Liverpool quartet Clinic when they swiped Blaine's beat to lead off "I.P.C. Subeditors Dictate Our Youth," the A-side of their first single in 1997. Only this time, after two iterations, the beat up and switches to a quick, grinding 4/4 garage-punk stomp, soon joined by tense, sneering bass, shock-treatment organ, and urgent-sounding nonsense from vocalist/mewler in chief Ade Blackburn. It's like watching someone rear up to take a big bite out of a burger only to have his dentures fall out: Gotcha!
Listening to Clinic's import-only self-titled EP collection from 1999, and Internal Wrangler, the perfect debut full-length that followed a year later (issued in America in late 2001), is like hearing that weird déjà vu moment repeated over and over again, only with different referents being subverted in different manners.
"We thought that was a great drumbeat," says bassist Brian Campbell over the phone from his home in Liverpool, a few weeks before the band comes to First Avenue on Wednesday, March 27. "So we just put some other things on top. Our songs take a long time to come together. They're very schizophrenic, with a lot of them going from 3/4 to 4/4 time, changing keys, things like that."
The most audacious thing about the band, though, isn't that they recombine stuff you've heard before (Phil Spector, Velvet Underground, Ennio Morricone) with other stuff you've heard before (Wire, Suicide, Augustus Pablo). It's how they do it: You've never heard those particular elements (and with Clinic, it's always about specifics--this guitar tone, that organ drone) combined in quite the same way before, with the same emphasis on artful juxtaposition. Or, crucially, with quite the same headlong sense of adventure.
Internal Wrangler's charming snarl is curbed some on the new Walking With Thee (Domino). The album's tempos are slower, the arrangements heavier on keyboards. The songs go on a while longer--you know, all the things rock bands do when they "mature." (Mercifully, they've held off on cellos for the time being.) What's most surprising, though, is how what was once a singularly compelling grab bag of reference points is shaping itself into a signature sound. The stomping "Pet Eunoch" is reminiscent of earlier numbers like "C.Q." and "Hippy Death Suite," while "Harmony" and "Walking With Thee" flaunt gleeful, nagging, garage-punk organ hooks. Walking is still plenty energetic, but the wired nerves of yore have been replaced by a serene confidence. Previously, Clinic had sounded like a dozen other bands. Now they sound like...Clinic.
Unless, of course, you think they sound like Radiohead, four of whose members named Internal Wrangler as one of their favorite albums of 2000 in Spin, and whose singer, Thom Yorke, is the band's most outspoken fan. Although Ade Blackburn's mewl is superficially similar to Yorke's, albeit far less stressed out, Campbell frowns upon the comparison. "Because we've toured with them and because they like us, people always expect us to sound like them, and we don't," the bassist says. "I mean, we like them a lot: We have a lot of respect for what they do and they're really nice guys. But I don't think we really fit in with any one kind of band at the moment. We always look back at the past. [San Francisco punk band] Crime is an example: They used to go onstage in police costumes. There was an element of taking the piss [that] we like."
So much so, in fact, that Clinic's stagewear was chosen in homage: The group performs in surgeon scrubs. "It's really boring to just see four guys in regular clothes on a stage, standing there," says Campbell. "We want to make the gig feel more like an event. We want to keep people guessing."