Clean and Beautiful
New Zealand’s the Clean is widely influential, but they feel like a mere footnote in rock ‘n’ roll history. My beaten, bruised and tattered copy of Rock: The Rough Guide, which is heavily British-centric, doesn’t have an entry on them, for one. And the Clean might be best described as a hidden treasure band, one that has spawned countless imitators, but never really found success in its own right outside of their home country. Perhaps the re-release of 2003’s compilation Anthology might change that somewhat, but it’s doubtful. Still, if you love nice, crisp, jangly, guitar rock, Anthology, which is being reissued digitally and as a four-LP vinyl set as part of Merge Records’ 25th anniversary celebration (it originally was released as a two CD set), is quite the collection.
A bit of a rough sketch on the Clean: they formed in 1978 and comprised of brothers Hamish and David Kilgour before they eventually settled on bassist Robert Scott. They released “Tally Ho”, which, and this is a joke, is not about a sex worker named Tally, on the burgeoning Flying Nun label and it cracked the New Zealand Top 20. Much has been made about the fact that “Tally Ho” was recorded for about $60, but it’s an important track for the Clean. They basically made their name playing all original material, which was unique in New Zealand rock at the time. The group continued to perform and put out EPs and singles for much of the early ‘80s, before breaking up. That forms the first half of Anthology‘s nucleus. The second half of the collection essentially covers the group’s ‘90s material, which was much more album-oriented and more cleanly produced.
Because Anthology is still widely available on CD, and it has been around for 11 years now and has been talked about critically since that time, I thought I might do something different and quasi-experimental, and add to the critical discussion that has already occurred by building upon what has been said in the past about this collection. This is not to stroke arguments, especially since I would think that some of the reviewers are no longer reviewing, it is more meant to be a smattering of what has been said with expansion. Consider it a collection of reviews about a collection of songs.
Let’s start with what PopMatters said all of those years ago:
“The real treat is the first disc, which showcases all of the band’s early material. Novices all, the trio admitted to learning their instruments as they went along, enabling the Clean’s sense of adventure and exploration. Imagine the Velvet Underground influenced by psychedelic drugs instead of heroin and having the beauty of New Zealand instead of New York as a backdrop. If you can do that, you understand what the Clean sounded like. – Adam Dlugacz, February 11, 2003
I would agree with this – the first disc is the strongest, though disc two is hardly a slouch. There’s a clear Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground influence on a lot of these songs, and if you close your eyes, you can image Reed (RIP) singing some of the material.
“Aside from the roots of many a New Zealand band, you can also hear the seeds of Yo La Tengo (who have covered the band countless times, and also guested on ... Getaway), and various lo-fi factions of American indie rock.” – Joe Tangari, Pitchfork, April 10, 2003
This is resolutely true. You can definitely hear the seeds of Yo La Tengo, particularly on ‘90s cuts such as “Big Soft Punch”, “Big Cat” and “Secret Place”, and you could even probably traces lines all the way back to “Tally Ho”, with its creaky organ, as an influence. As far as it goes, too, the Clean seem to have had a definite influence on other American bands such as Guided by Voices and Pavement.
“Among the errata, the most memorable is the prudently cut “Ludwig”, an outtake from the Modern Rock LP, which features subdued shouts and jamming as a bed for a faux-German accented rant about a man named Ludwig who has not only the good fortune of living in a castle but also the good grace of having Walt Disney visit and compliment his monolithic abode. The contrast between “Ludwig” and “Wipe Me, I’m Lucky”, the next song and the first from the Unknown Country LP, is eyebrow-raising. At one moment, you have this entirely aberrational song with the German-American accentuation, and next you have a playfully plucked instrumental with New Agey vocal harmonizing that sounds like some lost Aboriginal tribe from New Zealand. I suppose “Ludwig” would have made a stark contrast anywhere, but here it seems particularly pronounced.” – Brainwashed.com, no date or author specified
I did say that I didn’t want to start arguments here, but I actually found that “Ludwig” sticks out like a throbbing thumb, and is the only cut on this two-hour plus compilation that I would consider to be an outright failure. It sounds rather tossed off, and you can see why it’s an outtake. Still, it’s kind of humourous in a morbid fashion, but doesn’t really do much to advance the Clean’s sound, aside from making the band sound like they were reaching for novelty status. Still, as outlined above, some people rather enjoy the song, so all power to them.
“Began crude and ended tired like most mortals, but for two-thirds of these two CDs, they were dronin’!” – Robert Christgau
This is the briefest summation of this album that I found online and perhaps the most accurate. Indeed, while there is a great deal of great material on that second disc, including album ender “Twist Top”, the last third is a smattering of instrumentals and other odds and sods that don’t quite hit in the ways that the band’s earlier material does.
I’ll leave this as the final word:
“This is a lot of material to go through, but it’s definitely worth the effort ... not that it really is one. The curious thing about the Clean is how their music washes over you, despite the songs being for the most part in the three-minute range. I think this is probably because they’re really about band dynamic and procedure, rather than songwriting per se; in fact, you can skip the last thirty seconds of many songs and not miss anything structurally important. So, put either disc on, do the dishes or some light house-cleaning, and enjoy.” – Robert G., Songs in the Key of Bob blog, October 1, 2005
I can’t argue with that! Anthology is essential for anyone interested in Kiwi music, or music in general. More than two hours of good to great songwriting awaits you, if you hadn’t already discovered it. Anthology is a welcome reissue, and will more than make you happy to have experienced it. This is a celebration of song, and your life might just not be complete without it.