The Clean: Anthology

[11 February 2003]

By Adam Dlugacz

If I were a more ambitious man, I would save the first part of this review for a White Paper that I would sell to the music industry. It is for the label executives who are going hungry in the street having the bread torn from their children’s mouths by dastardly file sharers, CD burners, and MP3 traders that I write this. I’ve entitled it “The Successful Marketing and Selling of a Band”.

It was nearly two years ago when, while taking a break from the drudgery of the workplace, I discovered the Clean while visiting the Merge Records website. I first became interested in Merge because it was founded and run by members of Superchunk, one of my all time favorite bands. At first I was strictly a Chunk man, however, driven by my insatiable musical curiosity I began to look into other albums that bore the Merge label. A college chum recommended I check out the Magnetic Fields, which led to a brief period in my life where I refused to listen to any music not sung by Stephin Merritt. My fascination with all things Merge led me to two bands that would forever alter my perception of music, the Neutral Milk Hotel and Lambchop. Both bands presented music in a format that was vastly different than anything I had ever heard before and both led me down paths that would open my eyes to worlds that I never before would have found. Having never steered me wrong, I developed a trust with Merge that would bring me to purchase records by bands I had never heard.

Because of my success with Merge I often visited their website. On their MP3 page, which offers free downloadable music, I listened to a track by the Clean. Smitten with their unique brand of psychedelic pop, I went out and purchased their album Getaway. The Clean struck me as a developed version of the Soft Boys, and when I heard that they had been existence for over 20 years, I yearned for more. I returned to my trusty Merge Records website and found out that they had put out a solo album, A Feather in the Engine, by Clean founder David Kilgour, which I ordered online. I also discovered the Bats, featuring Clean member Robert Scott (their records can be found on Mammoth). By building up consumer trust through reliable products that consistently meet or exceed expectations Merge continues to thrive. So instead of investing billions in flashy videos or commercial campaigns, labels would be wise to invest in bands that actually have talent. Pleasing consumers doesn’t hurt either.

The Clean were formed by Hamish and David Kilgour in New Zealand in 1978. In 1979, they finalized their lineup when they added bassist Robert Scott. The trio went on to release two 12-inch EPs, two 7-inch singles, a cassette compilation, Odditties, and a live EP Live Dead Clean, on Flying Nun Records. Had they come from New York City or England, they would most likely be household names joining the ranks of seminal bands like XTC, Sonic Youth and even Velvet Underground. Instead, they’ve been relegated to cult status embraced by bands that follow them and the few enlightened fans that were lucky enough to get clued into them. Thankfully, Merge Records has seen fit to compile everything the band has ever recorded up to Getaway and release it as a double disc anthology. The first disc is made up of all of the group’s early recordings for Flying Nun records. Disc two is made up of the band’s three full lengths Vehicle, Modern Rock, and Unknown Country, all released between 1990 and 1996. As a bonus, the second disc also features four songs that appeared on two rare 7” singles.

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. “Outside the Cage” and “Safe in the Rain” are the two most optimistic VU tracks that Lou Reed never wrote. Since none of this is still in print it is all essential. The second disc showcases a more mature and focused band. As the band progresses from Vehicle to Modern Rock, they begin to develop a sound akin to the one Yo La Tengo has been toying with for the last five years. The tracks from Unknown Country are mostly instrumental and lack the spirit of earlier efforts.

Music lovers should log off the web (or go to the Merge website) and purchase this immediately, it’s that important. The Clean are one of those rare bands whose sound can be heard in the best of the bands who came after them. The amazing guitar sound shared by Yo La Tengo, Pavement, Superchunk and Archers of Loaf is realized here, only years before those bands came along. For 20 years, too many people have been overlooking one of the most forward thinking, melodic bands ever, missing out on the treasure that is the Clean. Anthology is an audiophile’s treasure, delivered to the masses by the fine people at Merge.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/clean-anthology/