The Clean: Anthology

The Clean

Ever come across a historically relevant band whose key CD you listen to once and then file away forever, only to fish it out when your niece asks, "Hey, what did blah blah blah sound like?" Well, that won't happen with the Clean or their retrospective. A singularly absentminded example of postpunk pop, the New Zealand trio married the Ventures to Moe Tucker, birthed the you've-never-heard-of-it "Dunedin Sound," and launched the seminal Flying Nun label. They defined the "lo-fi" aesthetic years before anyone called it an aesthetic, and you can hear their New Zeal mark on Sonic Youth, Pavement, and--oh, who really gives a crap which bands they influenced?

Like the Suburbs in the Twin Cities, the Clean's 1981 phenomenon was shut out by radioland and nourished in relative geographic isolation. But because New Zealand is a small country, not a tri-state area, the group reached number four on the national charts with the Boodle Boodle Boodle EP (a title surpassed in absurdity only by their subsequent Great Sounds Great, Good Sounds Good, So-So Sounds So-So, Bad Sounds Bad, Rotten Sounds Rotten). Set to four-track by Tall Dwarves' Chris Knox, the sound was Metal Box without dub or depression, metronomic Krautrock brought down to disarmingly human scale by the strain of two kindly male vocalists: guitarist David Kilgour (whose brother Hamish played drums) and bassist Robert Scott (later of the Bats). The put-upon Farfisa fit perfectly--less a precursor to Stereolab than the last wheeze of 1963, the first year punk broke.

After the band's 1982 breakup came a series of temporary reunions (the guys say they never plan these things), including 1989's pristine comeback, Vehicle, the best of which is collected here. It was the first Clean album I heard, and only now does it seem to justify their rep. "I Wait Around" is as wobbly of voice as it is cocksure of beat (and eager with guitar burps), but it makes most American "indie" of the period sound hopelessly posed. With a lyric about waiting in perpetuity for a girl at her rumored hangout, the tune seems typical of the group's missed appointment with history. And given the collection's unassuming title, and absence of liner notes, I wonder: Were these guys too modest? Rarely has an "important" band sounded less so, and been more welcome as a result.

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