On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ve been reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.
For over a decade now, Liverpool’s Clinic have worked in their own freaky corner, releasing sonically stunning records that sound like no one else. While the influences have been obvious and trendy enough – The Velvet Underground, Suicide, The 13th Floor Elevators – Clinic’s recorded output always avoids clichés of the day. More often than not, then, the band seems to operate outside the confines of time.
Following Clinic’s career rewards the careful, patient listener, yet reading critical responses can be frustrating. Some commentators hold Clinic in suspended animation, waiting for a stylistic return to the electro-garage of Internal Wrangler (Domino, 2001). According to these critics, Clinic have been recycling ideas as they move further and further away from their original sound; Pitchfork even went so far as to suggest that listeners only need Internal Wrangler. Nothing could be further from the truth. But unfortunately, this critical view strangles potential listeners’ experiences in a way the actual music – and great music it is – would not.
Undeterred, Clinic keep exploring new sounds as they follow a singular vision. The band’s fondness for exploration has led to a superior string of records, starting with Winchester Cathedral (Domino, 2004) and ending with Do It! (Domino, 2008). The ensemble ditched the sounds of their earlier work and painstakingly developed an otherworldly mix of swampy, fuzzed-out psych, folk, and jagged punk. On these records, one hears a band pushing the elasticity of its sound to the point of snapping. For listeners who delight in such sonic experiments, few contemporary bands prove more exciting than Clinic.
Now, with the release of Bubblegum, Clinic have jettisoned their established sound and mutated into what they’ve always threatened to become: an easy listening chamber pop quartet. This newest incarnation suits the band remarkably well, and from start to finish, Bubblegum is a first rate collection of songs. After a few listens, one aspect stands out the most: Clinic can be any type of band they want to be. In their world, though, one thing remains constant: a maniacal obsession with sound. On Bubblegum, this obsession finds expression through perfectly chosen instrumentation – strings, harpsichords, and acoustic guitars – and bright production values courtesy of John Congleton (The Polyphonic Spree, The Mountain Goats, St. Vincent). Perhaps the most pleasant sound, though, is Ade Blackburn’s voice. While he always flirted with a honey-soaked delivery, his preferred mode remained a menacing, clenched-teethed hiss. On Bubblegum, Blackburn refuses to suffocate his voice and has never sounded freer.
Speaking of freedom, Bubblegum seethes with the stuff in every sense of the word. For example, opening with four down-stroked notes, the hypnotic, sun-soaked “I’m Aware” – the album’s opening track and first single – shatters any ill-conceived notions of Clinic’s stylistic stagnation. Warm, entrancing backup vocals reminiscent of The Sandpipers add rich layers to this acoustic symphony, which is best enjoyed through headphones. To get a visual representation of how listening to this album feels, one should watch the psychedelic puppet video for “I’m Aware.” It’s the perfect visual compliment to the song’s otherworldly magic. Here are some highlights: pink suns spew cloth rainbows, puppets almost combust from happiness, and stars shoot out of stuffed guitars and puppets’ heads. Seriously. And, believe it or not, it’s all oddly beautiful and perfect.
Some critics might dismiss Bubblegum as a left-field attempt to break up the perceived sameness of Clinic’s last four records. Nothing could be further from the truth. Clinic never pander to critical trends, and the seeds of their new sound have been planted since Winchester Cathedral’s “Falstaff.” As a whole, Bubblegum rolls forward with ease and grace, supported by deceptively simple song structures and lovely sounds. Sure, certain songs stand out – the aforementioned “I’m Aware,” “Bubblegum,” and “Freemason Waltz” come to mind – but the best way to enjoy this record is from start to finish. Again and again.Visit: Clinic | Domino
Purchase: Insound | eMusic