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Clean Living and the Point of Indie Rock

The Clean invented indie rock in 1978 in Dunedin, New Zealand and have done a terrific job not trying to perfect it for 30 years.

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by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: September, 2009
It is barely a song; in fact it's the kind of thing the song jihad might hold up as heresy against the great tradition of songs, but I contend that is the point of indie rock
by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: September, 2009
It is barely a song; in fact it's the kind of thing the song jihad might hold up as heresy against the great tradition of songs, but I contend that is the point of indie rock

The Clean
Mister Pop

Indie rock, whatever it may actually be, was first formed in 1978 in Dunedin, New Zealand by two brothers, Hamish and David Kilgour. Not unlike Cadmus and Jason planting dragon's teeth, causing sailors to sprout out of the ground so that they may boat up and pursue the Golden Fleece, the Kilgour brothers plugged in guitars and a Farfisa organ into cheap amplifiers and called themselves the Clean, and that ramshackle sound, if I may borrow from another myth, launched a thousand ships. 

The early singles by the Clean, "Tally Ho" and "Anything Can Happen" particularly, lay the ground work of what makes an indie band. The melodies are sweet but roughly hewn, the performance congenial yet flawed. The singer can't really sing, the words don't mean much, the guitarist isn't really that great of a guitarist, the band as a whole doesn't even really exude much of a "but dammit, we're trying" air; and yet, somehow out of this arrive perfect songs, the kind of songs that you want to embody as a pattern for living. And plenty of bands have.

Thirty years later, the Kilgour brothers have picked up a few skills over the years, and used them to weave life experience into the old magic. On their new album Mister Pop, there is no mistaking the Clean of today for the rattling band they once were. The swoony "Loog" near-instrumental that opens the album bears the trademarks of "Tally Ho" - a daydreamy organ does its thing over a beat incessant like a mild surf hitting the sand, but now it sounds more calculated than accidental. These are sounds of grownups with beach houses compared to that of kids skulking around the dunes.  

Mister Pop is heavily loaded with the awkwardly delivered insight of someone who has been there and done that.  "Are You Really on Drugs?" and  "In the Dreamlife, You Need a Rubber Soul" are affable semi-songs in that impeccable half-lidded Clean style, but they remind me of when us olds post Beatles of Bob Dylan quotes as their Facebook status; I want to tell my compatriots in social networking c'mon, we can do better than that.  

Fortunately, for the rest of the album, they do. "Asleep in the Tunnel" has a serpentine guitar line that tumbles through the air like campfire smoke over a soft jangle of tambourines and the kind of sing song that makes you involuntarily sway from side to side.  "Back in the Day" half-spoken and sung, chiming like a signal that is just now making it through the wires, ripples just they did back in that very day. If you are going to go nostalgic, this is the right way to do it.

"Moonjumper" has my number: nearly six minutes of throbbing organ over a subdued rhythm and guitars wailing as slow as the progress of a solar eclipse.  It is barely a song; in fact it's the kind of thing the song jihad might hold up as heresy against the great tradition of songs, but I contend that is the point of indie rock. The great songs of indie rock are also not great songs by most definition; they are always missing something here or doing too much of something else there, and that is precisely what makes them great. They are not created to spec, and they resonate so well because nothing is created to spec, they just try to project a striving toward spec. A great indie rock song revels in abandoning all that strife.

"Factory Man" is a sympathetic critique on the working class in the style of the Kinks, another band that crafted their greatest songs by not over-crafting them.  It doesn't really say much about the factory man, because perhaps there isn't all that much to say about him. "Simple Fix" is a sweet dreamy bliss-out of texture: piano, little clicks, finger picked guitar and I think even some whistling maybe all sashay toward the sunset, a song hand-in-hand with life like young lovers.  

"Tensile" unpools gently in that very manner; tensile. The vocals are run through the synths and intertwined with the rest of the song tightly until they become a tight cable supporting a bridge over which you, the listener, are absently on a sunny afternoon motoring. This might seem a simplistic image to invoke, but it is one of simple palpable pleasure and they do it perfectly.  They close the album with yet another sunset number, "All Those Notes," except this time the sun really does sink into the sea, choppy with tremolo, a fade-out as long as the shadows at nightfall. The Clean have never been a band to make grand statements - thank God, because bands make terrible grand statements—instead they continue to wedge in with the sweet everyday wonder thirty years down the road.  

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Alex V. Cook
Music Editor

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com

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