The folks at Domino are hedging their bets with Clinic, seemingly unsure of the band’s toehold on the thread of indie cool jaggedly stitched across the fabric of music listening in the USA. The band’s fourth album, Visitations, was released in Clinic and Domino’s homeland, the UK, back in October of 2006. Fans across the pond, however, were buying new wall calendars before they had the chance to buy the new Clinic album at a domestic rate. Only with the group’s third album, the limp and insular Winchester Cathedral, has the band seen an album released in the US and the UK in the same week. Ironically, it was their worst record, receiving unenthusiastic press, including this PopMatters review. For me, the album was ruined by its very first sounds, a flatlining on a heart rate monitor. Aren’t the surgical masks cheesy enough? And, while we’re at it, what was up with the Sylvester the Cat vocals on “Circle of Fifths”? Thufferin’ thuccotash! So, yes, Clinic’s record label was understandably cautious about the band’s latest disc. After a triumphant beginning, Clinic’s releases have since offered diminishing returns.
The group made a splash with their excellent 2000 debut, Internal Wrangler. Praised by Radiohead (with whom they toured), Clinic emerged with a focused and gritty sound at a time when indie rock was scattered and fractured, and the acts creating concise and energetic music were teeny-boppers like *NSYNC and Britney Spears. In an era when independent-label music had no scene and no sound, Clinic came out of left field (and Liverpool) with a fresh approach that combined the motor-fueled polyrhythms of kraut rock with Hartley’s surfy, reverb-drenched guitars, and Ade Blackburn’s high, nasal vocals. The band retained all of these elements for their 2002 follow-up, Walking with Thee. Nearly as strong as its predecessor, this sophomore effort felt perhaps a tad too polished, trading in the fun, weird, experimental song sketches sprinkled here and there throughout Wrangler for a traditional line-up of tracks running in the range of two to four-plus minutes. What each of these records possessed, what made them a little extra special, was one standout number of slow and melancholic beauty. On the first CD, this was the warm dirge of “Distortions”; on Walking, it was a twinkling waltz called “Before the War”.
The new album, Visitations, lacks that one poignant moment, but Clinic otherwise manage a fine return to form. Post-punky single “Harvest” simmers with tension as it rides Carl Turney’s slow Burundi beat and scraping, muted rhythm guitar into swelling organ chords. Opener “Family”, meanwhile, is more insistent, with a loud, garage blues guitar driving the song. “Paradise” keeps the band’s melodica-like sound alive for a dubby but un-sunny tune better suited to heroin than ganja. The group even get acoustic on “Jigsaw Man” with folk guitar and conga beats. The hazy title track closes the album with a melody inspired by a half-speed take on the James Bond theme song.
Visitations is a strong and nicely varied album that swiftly corrects what had been a steady downward trend in Clinic’s recording career. Sonically lying somewhere between the scrappy Internal Wrangler and the cleaner Walking with Thee, this new disc is, I suppose one could call it, “classic” Clinic. Nonetheless, it is not a classic album. The Clinic sound remains unique in the indie world, but Visitations doesn’t distinguish itself from the group’s older and slightly better records. Fans will likely be delighted by this release, but anyone else who already owns the first couple of Clinic CDs can content themselves with knowing they’ve got the best entries from the band’s discography. Still, it’s great to find Clinic back in the groove. For indie rock lovers in the US, Visitations is a good start to the new year in music.