Clinic has been the great indie-rock tease of the last decade, always threatening to do something absolutely brilliant, to emerge from the shadow of their hype and become a band to be reckoned with. On the strength of the admittedly excellent and still powerful Internal Wrangler, a large audience of increasingly impatient people have been waiting for Clinic’s ship to come in, but each subsequent album hasn’t quite lived up to expectations. The band’s many contrivances were cute, alluring to those who could spot the numerous allusions and acceptable in the initial glow of the excitement surrounding Internal Wrangler. They wore their influences on their sleeve, and were more than up front about the riffs they lifted and lyrics they pinched.
They took only the best; the Ornette Coleman album cover, the unmistakable Ronettes kick-snare intro (not once, but twice, on “Internal Wrangler” and the “I.P.C. Subeditors” single), the opening lyrics to “Candy Says”, even quoting Beethoven on “The Second Line”. Mixed up in the potent froth of overdriven, garage guitars and spooky organ tones, these were merely accents that spiked the punch. In retrospect, after waiting for their big break-out record and getting stood up time and time again, these things (along with the scrub costumes) can be a little grating. When Walking With Thee, with its Mondrian-inspired cover, arrived two years later, the honeymoon was certainly over. The good feelings from the debut still propped the album up, but with “Pet Eunoch” clearly ripping their own “Hippy Death Suite” from the previous record, it was clear that the two year interlude was not spent wisely. The next two albums did nothing to convince an ever-dwindling audience otherwise.
Funf seems to be an effort to perhaps recapture the spirit of their first compilation, 1999’s self-titled collection of their first-three EPs. The major difference being that the tracks compiled for Clinic were written as stand-alone songs in the first place. They’re not b-side cast offs that didn’t make the cut on a pair of albums that were only moderately interesting in the first place. The tracks on Funf are. If anything, this collection gives an interesting look behind the surgical masks at the band’s process, as they throw some things at the wall and try to see what sticks. Of course, none of these songs stuck enough to be deemed worthy of inclusion on an album, so one shouldn’t expect any undiscovered gold. Few artists are lucky enough to have substantial b-sides (like, say, The Pixies), and Clinic shouldn’t be mistaken for such a band. Ultimately, Funf is a nice encapsulation of the roller coaster that Clinic has led its fans on for the last ten years. It’s been fun, but not quite. The extra F is for frustrating.
All the familiar elements of the Clinic sound are present on Funf. There are no surprises, just the tried and true organ drones and echo-reverb overcast that still grabs the attention mightily, even if they aren’t supported by a strong song. The best tracks are, interestingly enough, the slower ones. “Christmas” in particular draws out a lullaby melody and forces vocalist Ade Blackburn to be a little playful. “Dissolution; The Dream of Bartholomew” is positively experimental for Clinic, a creepy, distorted religious sermon delivered amidst a flutter of grungy guitar and a martial, executioner’s drumbeat. It’s a sound that deserves more attention. Unfortunately, it’s quite lonely on this album.
The two most infuriating tracks on Funf are “Magic Boots” and “Golden Rectangle”, and each epitomizes two of the most irritating aspects of Clinic’s sound. “Magic Boots” is cookie-cutter Clinic, in the vein of “Pet Eunoch” and “Cement Mixer”, so clearly indebted to those songs it’s hard to believe the band felt comfortable playing it at all. A driving, propulsive bass line periodically interrupted by stutter-stabs of guitar. It’s definitely catchy, and they’ve definitely done it before. “Golden Rectangle” on the other hand doesn’t even warrant inclusion on an odds-and-sods compilation, and it certainly shouldn’t be the closing track. The reverb-heavy song recalls the slow-dance ’50s sound that the band has cultivated as part of its aesthetic, but the melody, rhythm, and spirit of the instrumental is taken whole-cloth from The Flamingo’s “I Only Have Eyes For You”. They fumble around the motif for a minute or two before letting it expire with a gasp. And that’s it.
It seems far to late for Clinic to break from its well-worn paths, to eschew the familiar for something new that might reinvigorate its former fans and finally live up to the promise made by Internal Wrangler. Maybe its time that the expectations are adjusted, to allow the truth to set in and come to terms with the comfortable relationship the band has with their sound. Broken promises are hard to forget, though.