Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Drone Zone: The Clean, "Point That Thing Somewhere Else"

Fans of obscuro 80s indie rock speak of New Zealand's The Clean in hushed, reverent tones, and rightly so: they were basically the Southern Hemisphere's Velvet Underground, the godfathers of the immortal Flying Nun label, and purveyors of purified guitar strum. They formed in the late 70s and originally made only a couple singles and a couple EPs before disbanding, and their records were perennially in the "OOP" category. The Clean reformed in the late 80s and continue to make records every few years, rarely aiming their plow too far from their groovy furrow, which consists of tremendously catchy and occasionally ominous noisy guitar riffage.

The goods folks at Merge Records made life much easier when they released the 2-disc collection Anthology in 2002, which gathered up all their seminal early studio material on disc one and scattered later highlights on disc two. Unfortunately, though, a Complete Clean has yet to be compiled, and fanatics will have to search pretty hard for casual lo-fi gems like their live Live Dead Clean EP, the scrappy, sloppy fun demos on Odditties, and the even harder-to-find, cassette-only Odditties 2. How about a box set, Merge?

Given the title of the aforementioned live EP, the Clean seem to have an ironic relationship with classic rock, and I have a strong suspicion that the title of their finest song, "Point That Thing Somewhere Else", is in fact obscure record trivia. On the back cover of Jefferson Airplane's 1969 hippy manifesto Volunteers, the newspaper-style liner notes feature the band members' snide responses to the question, "What is your favorite stripe on the flag?" Grace's response, "Point that thing somewhere else", fits well on an album which satirizes conservative America with its anthemic countercultural songs and not-too-patriotic album cover. The title is about the only thing the Clean nicked from Grace Slick, as the song's menacing riff and eerie, hypnotic groove bears little in common with the Jefferson Airplane, instead sounding more like a surf rock band covering Joy Division.

This song, originally on 1981's Boodle Boodle Boodle EP, has almost gotten me speeding tickets on three separate occasions. I recommend that you play it very loud, and preferably in a car. If you want more, there are several live versions (on their many live albums) which show the band taking their best song and giving it hell onstage.

The Clean, "Point That Thing Somewhere Else":

And as a special treat, here's a spooky dub version from Odditties.

The Clean, "Point That Thing Dub":

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Jens Lekman: "Black Cab"

Certain songs enter your brain and never leave. I was first introduced to Jens Lekman's "Black Cab" by my brother during a lost weekend in Portland several years back, and I forgot about the song until my girlfriend played it for me, and, happily remembering its excellence, I quickly made it my most-played song of 2009. Jens Lekman is a Swedish popsmith in a nation which takes its pop seriously; he's sort of a Scandinavian Stephin Merritt. "Black Cab" is unusual for indie pop, though, being based on samples. It is, however, constructed over exactly the sorts of samples you would expect of a Swedish indie-pop singer-songwriter, namely 90s wimp royalty Belle & Sebastian and baroque 60s weepers the Left Banke. Taking the simple guitar pattern of a Left Banke album track and adding elements of Belle & Sebastian's "Mary Jo", Lekman creates an entirely new song about a spoiled party and an uncomfortable cab ride home. Lyrically, it sounds like a Lou Reed yarn, wry and funny and touching and sad all at once. I think I'll play it four or five more times.

For comparison, here's the Left Banke's "I've Got Something On My Mind":

And here's "Black Cab":

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Bees: Every Step's A Yes

The Bees are one of those good bands who ought to be bigger in the States than they are. Like other miners of gold nuggets from the 60s and 70s (such as the Coral, the Thrills, and the Zutons in the UK and Ireland and the Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, and Iron & Wine in the US), the Bees rummage through their classic rock, pop, and soul records and do their part for the environment by recycling the best of the past. They come from the Isle of Wight, an exotic (or least exotic-sounding, to me) location which makes this rock nerd think of Hendrix and Dylan and groovy 60s/70s festivals. But the Bees are not really rock stars in the festival sense. They remind me of Traffic, woodshedding in the countryside, or, more obscurely but accurately, the wonderful Brinsley Schwarz, a band which tried to be the British version of the Band, CSN, and the Dead combined. But they do not limit themselves to countrified Americana, and occasionally take on Stax grooves ("Chicken Payback") and reggae ("Winter Rose"), just like the long-lost Brinsley Schwarz, who recorded some pretty good reggae themselves).

Their 2004 record Free The Bees was a great combination of lovingly homemade retro soul, funky r'n'b, and and harmony-rich ballads. Sadly, legal issues meant that they had to use the unseemly moniker A Band Of Bees in North America, and the followup, Octopus, seems to have gotten lost in the market, despite its groovy charm. Now it looks like their new one, Every Step's A Yes, is not getting an American release, which is a real shame. This is great mellow Saturday afternoon music, and while the songwriting isn't going to show you any new colors of the rainbow, each and every track sounds like it was built by hand in a barn for the sheer joy of making music. So track this one down; it will make the wait for the new Fleet Foxes much easier.

Here's the lead-off track, "I Really Need Love":