I'm beginning to lose hope in the idea that Clinic have yet to unleash their opus.
Critics are loathe to put down Clinic. Perhaps it's the band's unassailable style, which hits all of our erogenous zones. They are a critic's band through and through, culling sounds from outsider heroes across several decades like the 13th Floor Elevators, Suicide, and Stereolab. Their debut, which has come to be regarded as a perfect exercise in reinterpreting retro sounds, brought them an incredible amount of attention in a period of weeks -- no small feat in the pre-blog era.
Hitting shelves shortly before the nu-garage explosion of the early part of the decade, Internal Wrangler was an electrifying cocktail of dirty punk and psychedelia. Their surgery mask shtick, which was just creepy enough to transcend gimmickry, probably helped to keep them from attaining the crossover success of their contemporaries the Stripes, Strokes, Vines, and Hives. (Maybe they should’ve called themselves ‘The Clinics’?) Even a tour with Radiohead couldn't make it happen. And yet, we only loved them more for it! Clinic were mysterious and exciting and they were all ours. (Middle school band geeks like me felt a special kinship with Clinic, as they are the only band I can think of to regularly showcase rock and roll clarinet. My woodwind of choice is sadly absent here.)
And then, the sophomore slump. After Internal Wrangler, no subsequent release sounded like it came from a different planet. The band had already established its raison d'être, and seemed to see little reason to develop. None of these albums were bad, just disappointingly, crushingly above average. Clinic had carved a stylistic niche so small, they didn't leave themselves room to grow. Singer Ade Blackburn once remarked that Clinic sounds like no other band. This is still true, but their originality carries less weight with each successive release, because their songs sound increasingly like Clinic Songs.
Do It! opens with a Beefheartian blues ode to nostalgia and regret. They barrel forward with "Tomorrow", driven by a backwoods acoustic rhythm guitar. This time around we make it to the third cut before that familiarity sets in. "The Witch" is a paint-by-numbers Clinic Song if ever there was one. Ade Blackburn's inscrutable falsetto sounds as urgent as ever. The retro organ is back, as are the one-note guitar riffs -- all par for the course.
"Free Not Free", the album's first single, features whimsical tremolo guitar dueling with volleys of buzzsaw distortion. It's a pretty centerpiece sandwiched by psych caterwaul. The second half of the album is largely comprised of more typical Clinic Songs. "Mary and Eddie", a brooding song in the vein of "Mr. Moonlight" or "Earth Angel", is derivative, but manages to surprise with booming barge sound effects and a wonderfully spastic guitar solo. These are decent songs, but they don't have the sense of childlike discovery like Internal Wrangler's "The Second Line" or "The Return of Evil Bill". Like an old lover, they still hit all the right spots, but fail to provide any new sensations. Regardless of chronology, Do It! is a mediocre album, and further cements Clinic’s status as a retro novelty band.
Clinic's critical failure lies within their inability to come up with great melodies anymore. Even the least memorable songs from their first two records are bolstered by immediately recognizable tunes. Those early songs lifted their melodies from girl groups and Motown soul of the early '60s, contorting them, amping them up and squeezing them -- forcing them into bizarre, broken shells. "Distortions" is perhaps the best example of this, rivalling the ecstatic heights of the Jesus and Mary Chain's genre-defining "Just Like Honey", which was basically a Ronettes tune without the "-ettes". Without this powerful melodic foundation, all that's left is wandering, weird instrumentation that doesn’t really go anywhere.
Their first two albums, especially the disreputable Walking with Thee have aged nicely, and prove that Clinic is capable of more than this. That they've been able to rehash these sounds for the last six years speaks to the vitality of the songs. I hate to think that Clinic used up all their tricks long ago, but I'm beginning to lose hope in the idea that they've yet to unleash their opus.
"Coda", the album's final track, bids us farewell with a dreamy instrumental. A narrator encourages us to "...let go of the rail". The song's merry-go-round organ, autoharp trills, and nasty guitar solo finish out the album on a high. And yet, the impressive closer leaves us wishing Clinic would follow their own advice.