Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Clean: Vehicle

1990s American indie rock started in England in 1989 when New Zealand band The Clean recorded Vehicle. Its impact was minimal on release in early 1990, but it's had a greater affect on the indie underground in the subsequent 23 years than any other record.

Vehicle crystallised the DIY garage pop aesthetic, it made jangling folk-rock at breakneck speed that found ways to play without worshipping, knock-kneed, at The Byrds' back catalogue and it channelled krautrock and psychedelia into a unified whole. And they did it so quickly!

"It was all recorded live the way we'd done the other records. We set up, blasted through the songs, did a day's worth of guitar overdubs then a day of vocals, a day of mixing and it was all done."
Robert Scott

The Clean didn't repeat that trick. They didn't need to. Their 4 subsequent albums have taken parts of that whole and made something different each time. As have many, many others. If you're looking for evidence of Vehicle in underground indie records you love from the past 20 years, then pick any 10 and the chances are that The Clean's sounds echo through many of them just as they do in new records released in 2013.

The constituent parts of Vehicle might suggest that The Clean didn't establish anything original; what they did do, though, was create an ideal representation of those aesthetics' possibilities.

Brian Eno said of The Velvet Underground & Nico that "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band". Vehicle sold fewer copies than that, but it would be fair to say that thousands of people who've heard it have taken parts of it into the recording studio with them.

We have 23 years and counting of records that might not exist without Vehicle. Those records are more adventurous and stronger for it:
I think we definitely thought we were saying something back in the day and it was pretty confrontational with our sound. We didn’t hold back. It was, ‘Here we are, take it or leave it—it’s not going to be nice. It’s gonna be confrontational'.
David Kilgour

Don't look for Vehicle Part 2, because it doesn't exist in The Clean's or anyone else's catalogues. Pavement did pretty well with Slanted And Enchanted, but that was a young band making a great debut in Vehicle's shadow. The sales ledgers might give Pavement or MGMT or Real Estate or...you get the picture...the victory on paper, but Vehicle is still, today, the most astonishing album. No one's come close to bettering it - thousands have been inspired by it and the music scene is richer for the suggestions and jumping-off points it's given.

If you've had the chance but haven't yet heard Vehicle I worry for you; if you have yet to hear Vehicle then I envy its manifold joys springing on you for the first time. The reissue is out now on Flying Nun/Captured Tracks.


Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Prophet Hens: Popular People Do Popular People

New Zealand has a new wave of new bands and their anthem is All Over The World by The Prophet Hens. It perfectly encapsulates the big bold ambition of Dunedin music with the quiet drama of isolation on a South Pacific island: part Chills organ-drenched pop, part bedroom angst (“I’ll try not to worry about people and the things they say”), its intent is to make a song that reaches out globally. And it does.

On their first album, The Prophet Hens do love bent out of shape (like the Teardrop Explodes) where psychedelic grandeur meets desolation. Like The Cure, they’ve got lush tunes and a lugubrious outlook, where misery meets melody (Green Blades Of Grass). Singer Penelope Esplin’s cool detachment, like Broadcast’s Trish Keenan or Kendra Smith in Opal, is coldly beautiful (High Times, for instance, is about a break up, not drugs).

Most obviously, The Prophet Hens share musical and geographical ground with The Chills. I know that The Chills released a new song a few weeks ago – I was as thrilled as you were, believe me – but I’m more excited about The Prophet Hens starting than The Chills returning. Popular People Do Popular People is a great start by a new band: it suggests possibilities and better things to come, and that’s always more exciting than an older band doing something almost as good as they once did.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Scott & Charlene's Wedding: Any Port In A Storm

Any Port In A Storm is an album about leaving home and moving to New York. Like The Modern Lovers, it balances wide-eyed awe, suburban awkwardness and the outsider’s low-level alienation.

This record is full of compelling verse hook melodies that The Strokes could sometimes do - remember 12:51 (“talk to me now I’m older”) - slacker rock from The Lemonheads’ punk-pop period, and The Feelies’ jangle and drone. The edgy, impulsive noise is complemented by singer Craig Dermody’s smart way, like Pavement, of combining folksy storytelling with a sharp eye for detail.

Any Port In A Storm is fresher and more luminous than debut Para Vista Social Club, but these songs are no more polished than they need to be. What the two Scott & Charlene’s Wedding albums have in common is a distinct sense of place. Melbourne’s suburbs might have been swapped for NYC, but this is as much about missing Australia as it is about being lost in the USA.

For all the American influences I’ve suggested (and, yes, I know that the The Lemonheads got really good thanks to Australians Nic Dalton and Tom Morgan), Any Port In A Storm is, next to Dick Diver’s Calendar Days, the crowning achievement of the recent Australian underground’s, uh, maturity. It’s an album that’s nearer to mid-80s Paul Kelly - I’d put money on Adelaide and Look So Fine, Feel So Low being close to Dermody’s heart - than anything else.

This record sounds like it'll be a major event; whether it will be is a different question. There are at least 3 songs - Fakin’ NYC, Lesbian Wife, Jackie Boy - that you could play to a full room and every person there would get immediately. There aren't many underground albums, ones that sound so vital and yet so accessible, you could say that about.

Any Port In A Storm is out July 22