The Clean

Mister Pop

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Label: Merge

It’s not always easy to be a still-active cult band. Those acts who release little usually get little recognition during their time, and upon breaking up, can look forward in a best-case scenario to rediscovery, reissues, name checking and a legacy complete and untainted by new material. Falling into this category are the Swell Maps, Young Marble Giants,and the original incarnation of the Modern Lovers. Add to these New Zealand’s Clean; active for three decades, they have every right to bask in their past accomplishments. Part of the Kiwi pop movement, they were on that country’s iconic Flying Nun records, whom also put out records by the Tall Dwarves, the Chills and virtually every other important Kiwi band of the period . These bands are part of a secret history of the ’80s, one that paved the way for indie music and the alternative boom of the ’90s.

The Clean played simple, infectious songs that drew on the Velvets and ’60s garage, but, perhaps because of their geographic isolation, had an idiosyncratic, offbeat quality. Their style of jangle and strum guitar was found all throughout the ’80s underground, something they shared with bands like R.E.M., the Feelies and the Dream Syndicate. Their influence can be felt in seminal ’90s indie bands like Pavement and Yo La Tengo, the latter big fans who’ve actually shared bills with the Kiwis.

With a new batch of young bands (Times New Viking, Eat Skull) playing scrappy, sometimes dissonant pop songs, the time is fortuitous for a new Clean album. Mister Pop, their first studio album in eight years, is appropriately named, as they have an uncanny knack for sweet, but not cheesy melodies. Merge put out an excellent Clean anthology a few years ago, so they could be forgiven for letting themselves ride into the sunset, but they are clearly not out of ideas. For those unfamiliar with the band, this makes for a strong introduction. It opens with the instrumental “Loog,” featuring a breathy female voice and an organ that is equal parts garage band and carnival ride. Most of Mister Pop’s songs are bite-sized, oddball pop nuggets. “In the Dreamlife You Need a Rubber Soul’s” lyrics are little more than the title repeated multiple times; whether the band was cannily tying into the Beatles reissues or not, it does point to the fact that aside from the Fab Four’s obvious influence on mainstream pop, many smaller bands took some of their more eccentric and weirder impulses and went with them.

Few of the songs go over three minutes and most have a low-key and hummable quality, like “Back in the City,” recalling the easy rhythms of fellow Antipodeans the Go-Betweens. The two best songs are perhaps the album’s least characteristic; “Moonjumper,” the longest track, settles into a humming, droning Velvets groove that seems like it could go on forever. And “Tensile,” with its robotic vocals, lines about the city and driving Motorik rhythm is probably as close to Kraftwerk and Neu! as the band will ever get. Mister Pop is a reminder of The Clean’s importance to indie music, but also a fine example of a beloved cult band staying creative and moving forward.

by Lukas Sherman

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