Back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when the hermetically sealed worlds of indie subculture and mainstream chart music almost never met, the New Zealand music scene represented a kind of parallel pop universe. This was the land where the brushtailed possum roamed, mountaintops glistened, and idiosyncratic indie bands like the Chills and Straightjacket Fits penetrated the Top 20.
The Clean, formed in 1978 by David Kilgour and his brother Hamish, were perhaps the band most instrumental in kickstarting this scene. It was one of their fans that founded the now legendary Flying Nun Records, and it was the unexpected success of their debut hit single “Tally Ho!” that helped turn the nascent label into a viable propsition. Influenced by the Velvet Underground and New York punk, the Clean tempered their terse, stripped-down metallic guitar sound with a quirky pop sensibility that would later inspire bands like Pavement.
Their first album since 2001’s Getaway, Mister Pop marks a much-anticipated reunion, apparently recorded in the basement of a church in their hometown of Dunedin. The result is a mixture of wide-eyed pastoral pop and playful experimentation. Instrumental opener “Loog” sets the tone; a beguiling slice of organ-led ‘60s psych-pop that caresses its airy, swirling soundscape with coo-ing female backing vocals. Tongues are pushed firmly into cheeks for the jaunty, Byrdsian pastiche of “Are You Really on Drugs”, while “In the Dreamlife You Need a Rubber Soul” is a breezy reflection on the vacuities of nine-to-five existence, complete with swooning slide guitar.
But it’s with “Asleep in the Tunnel” and “Back in the Day” that the magic starts. Here we’re in Go Betweens territory, with songs that seem to speak to you in confidence, carrying that particularly comforting quality seemingly unique to Antipodean bands. The effect on the listener is like being re-united with a long-lost favourite shirt.
“The forecast is for snow / You might not make it home”, sings Kilgour on “Asleep”, cocooning us inside its warm, briskly strummed acoustic. “Back in the Day”, with its spangly guitar and twanging, resonant bassline, could almost be vintage Lloyd Cole. We even get a spoken outro: “Out here in the ice fields it seems like / Extreme is the new extreme”, Kilgour observes as the track winds down like a watch. “I’m not here for a long time / I’m just here for a good time…”. By contrast, “Moon Jumper” is a mesmerising five-minute instrumental drone that borrows heavily from the Velvets and Faust, its shifting textures and percussion brilliantly sustained.
With “Factory Man”, an insipid ditty that could have been penned by Ray Davies on an off day, the record once again strays into pastiche, but the next two tracks are highlights. The instrumental “Simple Fix” is a delightful smorgasboard of acoustic guitar, piano, whistles, glockenspiels, and baby noises, all of which float along on a panoply of percussion instruments from the back of the music school storeroom. This gem of skittering, improvisational loveliness sounds as if it should be soundtracking The Royal Tenenbaums.
Then we hit the home straight with the groove-locked roadrunner rythmns of “Tensile”, a kind of Kiwi ode to the Autobahn complete with pitch-bending keyboards and deadpan, vocodered vocal. “The town looks best at night / As we drive by”, the band rasp metallically in their best Kraftwerk voices, while underneath the thrumming, driving bassline, gently fuzzed guitars add to the nocturnal road movie feel. The album’s brief outro “All Those Notes” rounds things off with a wistful, reconciled air: “When the sun comes up we’ll be older”, Kilgour reflects ruefully as the music ebbs away.
The Clean are growing older with grace and humor on this humane, smart, and unpretentious record. It’s a patchy affair, and at times its throwaway insouciance can leave you longing for something as intense and incisive as early classics like “Point That Thing Somewhere Else”. Yet at their most inspired, the Clean have lost none of their ability to leave you with a life-affirming glow. Mister Pop isn’t going to set anyone’s world alight, but it might make yours a fractionally nicer place to be.