There's only one time each year when wearing a lot of frightening makeup doesn't necessarily make you a glittery Mariah Scary--oops, I mean Carey. It's Rocktober now, and I can just picture the forthcoming signs at Costume Hut: Halloween masks, they're not just for Slipknot anymore! Yet in the music world, our worship of the Great Pumpkin no longer feels so holiday-specific: Musicians are making it part of their daily routine to dress up as their favorite Sixties and Seventies icons, hoping music critics will throw something more than a box of raisins into their pillowcases in return. Retro rock is the new Day of the Dead, and whether we realize it or not, we're all watching the late greats step out of the grave and into the bodies of some gangly post-teens who dance around with too much eyeliner on. Am I the only one who thinks this current music scene is suspiciously close to becoming a reenactment of the "Thriller" video?
Sure, the fact that new arts draw from older ones is a constant facet of our culture: We're always resurrecting styles from bygone eras. But Liverpool's Clinic seem to be the only group amid a slew of neo-retro bands whose album suggests there's something inherently macabre about re-creating the past. Their latest release, Internal Wrangler (Sony/ATV), which debuted in the U.K. last year but has only recently been released stateside, is dark pop for anyone who has ever gotten a creepy sensation just from trying on Granny's old go-go boots. These indie-psychedelicates revive everything from a Beethoven piano melody to Wire's art-punk stylings and Velvet Underground's guitar fuzz (at one point singer Ade Blackburn pleads for a point of view that is "free of distortions" while quiet, Lou Reed-like guitar noise swells ironically in the background).
On the album's opener, "Voodoo Wop," shamanic drums pound, punctuated by a buzzing that sounds like flies settling on decaying matter. On "DJ Shangri-La," Suicidesque keyboards play the foreboding "Moonlight Sonata" over the sound of a beeping pulse monitor and a grandfather clock striking midnight. Time's up for the heyday of Martin Rev and Alan Vega's New York punk duo, but Clinic is bringing out its defibrillator pads to shock the corpse back to life. If goths had a sense of humor, Clinic would be the new Cure.
But Clinic doesn't simply reinterpret chic old bands. Although it's most likely unintentional, Internal Wrangler also functions as a good gag: As the album progresses, Clinic seem to be sliding further and further back in time. They slip into Neanderthal speak: "The Second Line," a bouncy ditty whose vocals hover on the verge of hyperventilation, has Blackburn declaring, "Tickie tickie da wom ma na!"; on "T.K.," he's muttering, "mee mi dizzy nee"; on the title track, he notes, "broom pop whoo ha hoo." The album's structure also mimics the constant recycling of past styles: After Clinic's energetic punk response to psychedelia, "Hippy Death Suite," Internal Wrangler goes directly into "2nd Foot Stomp," complete with Mamas and Papas-type backing vocals and tambourine. (Hadn't they just written flower child Mama Cass's obituary with the previous song?) And just before the final gorgeous lullaby "Goodbye Georgie," they leave a moment of silence, an eerie remembrance of things past: Track 13 is as blank as a 13th floor elevator--an untitled four seconds of nothingness.
New York's latest wunderband, the Strokes, are more subtle and playful with their genres than Clinic are. But on their debut album Is This It (RCA), the Strokes are still robbing more styles from older bands than the cast members of Diff'rent Strokes have robbed video stores. The appearance of this It Band--who have been hyped by every music critic with mop hair and/or, well, ears--conjure up the ghost of the early Stooges. (Their press release mentions Iggy and Co. as a major influence.) Perhaps this fashion sense was developed at a young age by singer Julian Casablancas's father, model mogul John Casablancas. The latter was the pioneer of the "Be a model, or just look like one!" slogan. The former seems to have sparked a "Be a musician, or just look like one!" craze--keep an eye open for lookalikes with bodies as skinny as their neckties at this Saturday's First Avenue performance.
The Strokes share some devices with Clinic: The caveman lingo is in evidence (on "New York City Cops," Casablancas grunts, "Uh! Ha! I meant...Ah!") and the guitar licks and fuzzy vocals still come directly from Lou Reed. But Is This It is filled with more ironic hindsight than morbid content: Their proto-punk throwback is snarkily titled "The Modern Age," and "Some Day" is a confident prediction of the future, written with the jangling guitars of the past.
You've heard all of their through-the-crackling-microphone vocals, simple drum beats, hooky guitar riffs, and upbeat music before. In a recent MTV Europe online interview, Casablancas stated that he admired the Velvet Underground "for what they did and for what they sounded like at the time that they came out." Perhaps the Strokes' ironic song titles give them a clever edge: The band give themselves permission to plunder the inheritance of V.U. without having to pay the estate tax of being labeled "derivative." The only hint of macabre nostalgia comes on "New York City Cops." When Casablancas sings, "New York City cops ain't too smart," the song rejuvenates longing for the days when an insult to the men in blue represented a healthy distrust of authoritarianism (didn't the Beatles call them piggies?) rather than an affront to those who worked to rescue folks in the World Trade Center.
Clinic's and the Strokes' creative reinterpretations manage to remove the stench from rock 'n' roll that is being recycled from the dustbins of punk. Let's hope this trend continues in a similar vein, lest we start resuscitating those who, like Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, would best be left alone to play cards with the Grim Reaper. And don't you try to tell me that leather suitcase of a man isn't dead yet.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.