The Clean

(formerly posted on the Yahoo! Music site)

The Clean's status as a seminal indie-pop act is so secure, it's easy to forget the group has released only five albums' worth of songs. Yet as the flagship artist of New Zealand's influential Flying Nun label, this is the Band That Launched a Thousand Bands, both by example and by direct descent.

The Clean first formed in 1978. After two years of unstable personnel, guitarist David Kilgour and drummer Hamish Kilgour found bassist Robert Scott, establishing the permanent lineup. Victims of their remote surroundings, the Clean didn't record until 1981, when their debut single "Tally Ho!" (Flying Nun's second release ever) became a renegade hit on the NZ charts. Two landmark EPs followed (Boodle Boodle Boodle and Great Sounds), but the band split up amicably in 1982. Scott went on to form the Bats, while the Kilgours recorded as the Great Unwashed. After an import-only rarities set and live EP, the indispensable Compilation emerged, collecting songs from the initial EPs, "Tally Ho!" and (on CD) six more live tracks. Following a successful reunion gig in 1989, the group reformed and released Vehicle. Less frantic than past recordings, it was a warm revival of the band's catchy, compact, groove-based pop. Another hiatus ensued (more Bats releases, solo records, offshoot bands Stephen and the Mad Scene) before Modern Rock appeared in 1995. Significantly different, this album was more restrained and instrumentally diverse (dulcimer, cello, viola, mandolin...), yet just as satisfying. The next year brought Unknown Country, a more problematic disc. While the gentle folk textures were lovely on the surface, too many tracks sounded like half-baked ideas composed on the spot.

Since Unknown Country, Scott has been readying a second album by his other band the Magick Heads, while both Kilgours were working on solo records. As ever, the Clean's future is cheerfully unresolved.

1. Compilation 1986 [NZ], 1988 [US]
Perhaps the fundamental Flying Nun release, this 18-song collection is an irresistible slice of churning, lo-fi guitar pop, led by classics like "Billy Two," "Anything Could Happen," "Beatnik" and "Tally Ho!" The latter may have the most memorable organ riff since "96 Tears."
Rating: 6

2. Modern Rock 1995
Easily the group's most varied offering, Modern Rock debuted a new maturity with smoother production and more eclectic arrangements. "Secret Place" and "Starting Point" update the peppy singles formula, while other highlights switch between reflective ("Linger Longer"), punchy ("Different World"), rambling ("Wake Up in the Morning") and whimsical ("Ginger Ale," sung by Scott's toddler daughter).
Rating: 5

3. Vehicle 1990
This frustratingly brief album (under 29 minutes) was the Clean's big comeback, a frisky set of two-minute singles that has improved with age. Circular pop like "Draw(in)g to a (W)hole," "Big Soft Punch," "Dunes" and "Big Cat" blends with acoustic quirkiness, while the wobbly vocals only add to the homespun charm.
Rating: 5

4. Unknown Country 1996
With few hints of the band's garage-pop roots, Unknown Country dipped into rustic folk impressionism with mixed results. "Twist Top" was effervescent and "Happy Lil Fella," "Clutch" and "Wipe Me, I'm Lucky" were beautifully melodic, but many of these sketchy, often instrumental compositions should've been either further developed or discarded.
Rating: 4

--Eric Broome