It’s always fascinating to see which bands don’t crossover to the US.
It’s always fascinating to see which bands don’t crossover to the US. For every band from the UK (or elsewhere – the “Maple Curtain” between Canada and the US was all that separated us from the swift takeover of Sloan) that makes a killing in the US – Oasis, Radiohead, Arctic Monkeys – there’s boatloads that just never quite grab hold, known only by rock dorks who know where to dig for good stuff. Even after that, there’s tiers: If you’re reading this, you’ve likely heard of Manic Street Preachers or Super Furry Animals, but do you remember Gay Dad and their uproarious “Joy!”? It’s hard to know where to place Liverpool’s Clinic – with their use of vintage and thrift shop synths and a penchant for surgical masks, they’re beloved by fans but elude the public at large. Since 1997, they’ve delivered the same brand of acidic psych rock as King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard and Thee Oh Sees. Clinic haven’t made a record since 2012’s Free Reign (not counting the Oneohtrix Point Never-infused companion/remix album Free Reign II), making it easy to wonder if the psych revival kids might finally be ready for them. It’s unlikely that Wheeltappers & Shunters, their eighth album, will be the one that breaks them for the rest of the world – but one can hope.
At just 26 minutes, it’s Clinic’s shortest record to date, yet it never feels like it. Just one song passes the three-minute mark, the truly massive-sounding closer “New Equations (at the Copacabana),” which by comparison feels like an epic. But the inner workings of each song are such that you’ll find yourself gawking at how they managed to make it fit into their slight framework. It doesn’t do much to change the band’s format, though it gives us occasional electronic flourishes and drum machine-driven songs (“Congratulations,” “D.I.S.C.I.P.L.E,”), as well as a more coherent (but still no less incomprehensible) frontperson Abe Blackburn, still delivering whimsical and scatterbrained lyrics that sound like fragments of separate songs that have been fused together in a swirl of washed-out noise and color. The album ends with a purely exuberant club banger, as “New Equations” gives into its wobbly bass urges, the album’s most unexpectedly great moment.
Even in the weakest moments of Wheeltappers, the mind races for other bands that make music like this – Tobacco’s revisionist history of ‘70s electronic music (“Laughing Cavalier”), the yowly post-punk LCD Soundsystem’s dance-loving post-punk swagger (“Mirage”), the grumpy shouting of mclusky (“D.I.S.C.I.P.L.E.”) – but nobody else makes music like this. Songs are piled high with layers of noise and weirdness, like a lost Phil Spector-produced Zappa album – bells and shakers and horns and plasticky drum machine beats mix in all flow together with blissfully restless abandon. Opener“Laughing Cavalier” is impressively chaotic, like a song left out of a more fucked-up cut of Willy Wonka. It’s an exhilarating mess of instruments with Blackburn, like a warped carnival barker, deadpan imploring the listener “Ha ha ha, he he he, ho ho ho, do as you please.” Trying to capture it all in writing feels impossible; so many things happen in these 26 minutes that you might feel sonic fatigue after repeat listens.
Blackburn and his thick accent help pull these moments together into one cohesive package. He’s adept as ever at a drastically more evolved version of refrigerator magnet poetry: “For the life you choose/ And the coastal views/ No one can refuse/ With the flying fish/ And the racing tips” (“Flying Fish”), “Wednesday was a shit day/ Every day is a shit day” (“D.I.S.C.I.P.L.E.”). Occasionally, he stumbles into something that manages to tug on a phantom string: “Wandering through a lifetime/ I wonder who you are/ Reflections haunt the mirror/ You’re wondering who you are,” he sings dozily on “Be Yourself/Year of the Sadist,” just before imploring, “Be yourself.”
Not everything works perfectly. The beauty of the songs’ bite-size nature is that the stuff that falls flat – the loud typewriter noise and choppy vocals in the first section of “New Equations (at the Copacabana),” the wandering and waterlogged “Ferryboats of the Mind,” or the atonal fragment “Tiger” – doesn’t get the chance to overstay its welcome, and by the end of it you’re happy they’re trying to broaden their horizons. It’s hard to say if they’re ever going to have their day in the sun, but even if Wheeltappers isn’t going to launch them on an arena tour anytime soon, you can still hope that people’s thirst for weirdness will inspire a few more people to join in on the wild ride that only Clinic can provide.