Pleasant Contortions

Another Liverpool quartet heads for the States--but this group wears surgical masks

Although most of the elements in the Liverpool band Clinic's music--psychedelic, blues, Motown, punk, ultra-lounge, glam and dub--sound familiar, this creative quartet seems consistently able to rearrange them into shockingly pleasant contortions.

"When we put the songs together, we are always trying to surprise ourselves," said singer-keyboardist Ade Blackburn during a recent trans-Atlantic phone interview.

"And we hope that the music has the same effect on the listeners. It's not something where you can listen to the album and ever get complacent. You don't know what's coming up next. At least that's the intended atmosphere most of the time."

We submit for evidence the first five tracks on Clinic's newly released fifth album, Do It!

"Memories" sounds like Public Image Ltd. meeting Captain Beefheart for a rumble in the garage. "Tomorrow" is mutant blues blooming in a faux-naïve garden of psychedelic folk. "The Witch (Made to Measure)" is not unlike something Bo Diddley might've come up with while doing acid and watching a second-line procession in New Orleans. "Shopping Bag," the fifth track, comes on like a free-jazz group jamming with a 1970s New York punk band during an art-school opening.

And "Free Not Free," song No. 4, has a sweet, mellow swingers' lounge vibe, until the explosive, enervating fuzz-guitar textures drop like napalm all over the groovy mood.

Clinic is bringing its mad, glorious sound back across the pond for another American tour, and the band will play Wednesday, May 21, at Plush. Rising Tucson act Mostly Bears will open.

Considering the music Clinic plays, you'd think the band would be criticized for indulging a bit in nostalgia. But rarely are such accusations leveled.

Blackburn explained, "It's sort of like we are taking those elements and trying to make something new from it. If something ever sounded too close to the past, we would hate it and go right in the other direction."

Naturally, thick guitar effects add to the free-form freak-outs and dark eerie drama of Clinic's music. Guitarist Jonathan Hartley's custom rack of pedals includes a seemingly endless assortment of tremolo, fuzz, wah-wah and other effects. He really gets to stretch out on Do It! tracks such as the martial dance-floor stomp of "High Coin" and the mind-melting, carnivalesque album closer, "Coda."

But equally important to the Clinic sound is the Philips Philicorda organ, which is Blackburn's keyboard of choice. The Philicorda is a vacuum-tube-based synthesizer made in the Netherlands and marketed widely for private use in early-'60s England.

"Ours is from '65. I think at the time, it wasn't even used professionally. It was at the time used mainly as a home organ. We picked it up really cheaply. It is so versatile and sounds huge. It's very easy to adjust the sound by distorting and adding reverb or what have you. It's immense."

Hartley and Blackburn formed the band in 1997 in the wake of their previous group, Pure Morning. During those 11 years, Clinic has refined and polished its sound over the course of five albums, all of which are keepers in this camp.

Blackburn agreed about the band's progress. Yet, because he is painfully polite, he was reluctant to sound arrogant.

"When we started out, it was a lot more garage-rock-based, more influenced by things like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. Over time, it's as if our music has taken on a life of its own. I think it's almost like it sounds more British as well, sort of in its eclecticism, maybe."

Being a quartet from Liverpool carries its own burden, Blackburn conceded: "Coming from Liverpool, and the history it carries for all of us with the Beatles and all that, can actually be quite suffocating.

"As much as I can appreciate the past, it's something you really have got to ignore as much as you can when making music here. You have to take your own path with music and not be weighed down by the aspects of the past. Or at least maybe find a truce with it."

Speaking of tradition, many pop purists will appreciate that Clinic songs rarely reach four minutes in length. The longest cut on Do It! clocks in at 3 1/2 minutes. Blackburn has noticed this as well. He said that he doesn't like to make songs that overstay their welcome.

"Generally, if you think about the sort of things that flesh out most songs, the songs that get to five minutes or longer, it's just a lot of self-indulgence, isn't it? Like really long solos or overly fussy arrangements or something. In pop, you have to make a point in 2 1/2 or 3 minutes and then show signs that you are starting to get out of there."

Anyone who has ever seen Clinic--either in a live setting or in photos--will immediately notice the surgical masks its members have worn since the band's beginning, often in combination with other matching costumes.

Blackburn explained that the group doesn't wear the masks to hide their identities or because they are germ-phobic. It's a fashion conceit.

"It's not something that's too serious. On this coming tour, we are going to add the element of us all wearing Hawaiian shirts.

"Although the masks have become a tradition, it's really just a laugh. It's like a band wearing a certain hairstyle; it's an entertainment thing. I mean, T-shirts and jeans could be considered a uniform or a costume as well."

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