With the string of lo-fi singles that made up the Clean’s discography in the ‘80s, not to mention their often quick-sketched covers, it must have been easy to see the band as another punk-inspired group of pop contrarians, guys who used minimal recording effort and blistering yet catchy beds of chords to portray their careless rock genius persona. But now, looking back, the Clean were an antidote to such easy and cynical constructions. Vehicle, their first proper full-length shows the irrepressible joy, and airtight skill, of their songwriting and displays it in bright, but not too shiny, lights.
It’s an indelible part of the Clean’s story, and follow-their-own-path charm, that their first record is also something of a reunion album. The band had come together for a one-off show in 1989—captured on the In-A-Live EP, also included with this reissue—but upon hearing them Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis offered to record them and, after a three-day session, we had Vehicle. It’s not the rough-edged jangle-pop that the Clean burned through in the early ‘80s, so while it draws lines back to “Tally Ho!”—the song that put the band and their label, Flying Nun, on the map—it’s an album more interesting in expanding on that past than living in it.
Classic opener “‘Draw(in)G To a (W)hole” is much leaner and more straightforward than its titular lettering implies. Brothers David and Hamish Kilgour let guitars ring out in simple repeating riffs and descending fills while the bass rumbles underneath, and Robert Scott’s drums churn perfectly under them, propelling them into the eye of the song’s jangling storm. It’s a perfect piece of pop music, with wide-open verses tightening up into anthemic, taut choruses. It leads nicely into the buzzing, ragged sweetness of “I Wait Around” and the surf-rock sweetness of “Bye Bye”.
In these three tracks, we get the impressive guitar chops of David Kilgour, the band’s undeniable pop sensibility, Hamish’s charmingly approachable voice, and the sinewy strength of Scott’s drumming. Together, they set up the subtle but varied permutations in sound Vehicle digs into. The album is nothing if not consistent in its approach, but that doesn’t mean that the ripple-down riffs of “Diamond Shine” or the organ lilting of “Big Soft Punch” don’t break new ground. All through these songs, the music is unapologetic about wearing its heart on its sleeve. Acoustic gem “Home”, David Kilgour wonders “I want to go home, / Do you think I will?” with equal parts concern and curiosity. Scott takes his stab at vocals on “Big Soft Punch”, and his high keen in the choruses gives the playful pop tune a personal touch.
So you do get into the inner lives of the players here—and that we hear them all adds to the complexity of ideas and themes working through Vehicle—but it’s especially important to note that none of this is navel-gazing or particularly dour. The Clean asked questions without brooding over them. In this way, this 1990 release is remarkable, coming at the beginning of a decade that, once Cobain and his followers got a hold of it, was full of yarbling serious men, deathly rock geniuses and eye-rolling college rockers. The Clean could have fun—see “Big Cat”—without rolling their eyes too much, and explore emotions without insisting they were tortured. Vehicle sets up an alternative route through the decade, where records didn’t have to be depressing to be interesting, and the band continued that path with other great records like Modern Rock and Unknown Country.
But thanks to Flying Nun and Captured Tracks, we can now hear Vehicle again and recognize that what makes it so crucial is, yes, the ways in which it ends up an outlier in the ‘90s rock canon, but more importantly in its timelessness. You can hardly hear the 23 years that have passed in spinning this record again now. Each song feels as fresh as they must have then, and the inclusion if In-A-Live, a brief but equally essential document, reminds us that much of the life here comes from the players themselves. Travis’s recordings may have spruced up the fidelity we were used to hearing from the Clean, but it’s not extra production we hear on Vehicle. We just get Hamish, David, and Robert, sounding close enough to call them out by first name, and you can almost hear the grins on their faces in these sessions. Irony, nostalgia, money, bitterness, shiny new production—there’s lots of things to hide behind when you get the band back together. But the Clean were brave enough to stand up front, to let these great songs speak for themselves, to remind us of the focus they always had, and Vehicle remains a classic because of it.