The Clean: Anthology

Adam Dlugacz

The Clean


Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2003-01-21
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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