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The most puzzling thing about Clinic isn’t the medically inspired stage garb. Or the pathological fear of the snare drum. Or the gratuitous Radiohead comparisons. It’s not even—gasp!—the Grammy nomination. It’s that the Liverpool-based art-rock outfit has always been viewed as the future—an artist to watch, a buzz band, the Next Big Thing. Funny: Musically, the next for Clinic has always been pretty close to the last—or, for that matter, the one before last.
Not that the group has ever really made a statement to the contrary. True, it demonstrated a bit of rhythmic variety back in the days of the late-’90s discs collected on 2002’s Three EPs. But by the time the quartet’s sophomore full-length, Walking With Thee—not to mention a spot opening for Thom Yorke’s crew—brought Clinic and its take on stripped-down to the masses, its sound had solidified like hardtack.
Walking is as good an example of Clinic working its formula as any. It goes something like this: Take a basic postpunk dance rhythm. Augment it with a simple, cyclic guitar melody and some melodica more reminiscent of Sesame Street than Augustus Pablo. Then have singer and guitarist Ade Blackburn build tension with his distinctive clenched-teeth mumble, which goes a long way toward making his brand of what’d-he-say? understatement sound more sinister than sissy. Oh, and repeat—a lot. Though it doesn’t vary much from song to song—even in terms of melody—Walking is totally, unnervingly fascinating: By leaving so little at the surface of its music, Clinic plucks at your subconscious with every perfectly placed note.
Of course, the negative of such an approach is that Clinic can just as easily find itself tottering over the wrong side of the musical fence that separates minimalist from boring. The group rarely seems to put up much of a fight: Its more interesting material seems effortless, its also-rans even more so. Aside from the relatively jarring (and slightly cheesy) use of a heart monitor as a metronomic intro, the band’s latest, Winchester Cathedral, picks up almost exactly where Walking left off. There are repetitive guitar parts, invariant wails of melodica, and vocals as strained, retentive, and quietly desperate as an accountant at tax time.
When it works, it’s just enough to carry your interest through to the end of one of the album’s two- or three-minute songs. But unlike Walking, Cathedral doesn’t succeed as a whole: This time, except for the handful of cases in which the band blatantly tries to offer something—anything!—new, you might as well be listening to the same song again and again. When working within parameters as constrained as Clinic’s, it’s all about the details. Other, more layered recordings might bury such minutiae as the timing of a cymbal hit, but Cathedral’s sparse soundscape readily reveals them, allowing such usually incidental touches to make or break the album’s 12 tracks.
Take “The Magician,” which begins with a clarinet wailing over Carl Turney’s unremarkable but steady four-on-the-floor drumming. When Blackburn comes in, he’s as inscrutable as ever, allowing only the occasional word or phrase—“You’re back home for Easter,” “rhinestones,” “You’re back on your feet”—to break the intelligibility barrier. So far, so predictable—and yet, just like every other Clinic success, the song soon starts to work in the head-slappingly simplest of ways: The infectious melodies are left free to weave in and around each other, nimbly grabbing the spotlight one at a time. There’s that little bit of ’60s-style fuzz right before everything drops out and Blackburn is left by his lonesome, too, and, better yet, the way Turney makes each one of those few hits of the ride sound big and important.
Such snoozers as the bongo-decorated “Home” and the lyrics-up-front “Anne” are begging for something like that to shatter their monotony. The instrumental “Vertical Takeoff in Egypt,” for example, is a dirge even by Clinic standards, but it gets the percussion right, more than anything else here. As sliding guitars swirl around a sustained church-organ melody, a thudding bass drum and a not-quite-sloppy open high-hat sway along like drunken funeral marchers, threatening to make you forget all about the interesting stuff going on around them. On a more cohesive album, “Takeoff” might have seemed like a mere interlude, but on Cathedral, it stands out as one of the disc’s best compositions.
“W.D.Y.Y.B.,” by contrast, shows exactly how much boundary-pushing is too much for Clinic. A hulking rocker, the song finds the band trying to go belatedly Britpop: Guitar riffage attempts to snarl and instead clumsily collides with and eventually overwhelms the vocals that Blackburn tries so hard to get barely above a whisper. He even throws in a bloodless “c’mon,” proof enough that some bands just shouldn’t try dick-swinging. Of course, the waltzy, cocktaily “Falstaff” proves that some bands shouldn’t try getting all sensitive and sophisticated-like, either.
But at least those two songs succeed in providing a reprieve from all the brainy minimalism. And you can’t fault their placement: In the No. 7 and No. 9 spots, they fall just right to make you believe the band might be considering the big picture after all. Elsewhere, however, Cathedral is all variations on the thumping postpunk theme of “The Magician,” executed with considerably less precision: “Country Mile”’s tinkling chimes and “Fingers”’ bursts of white noise add nothing but decoration, and “The Majestic #2” sounds played by a band that just doesn’t care.
Because of the virtual uniformity of Clinic’s work, you might think that it doesn’t have to. But with so much going on amid what sounds like so little, the group needs to think more than most about where things should go and why they’re there. If Winchester Cathedral isn’t exactly a failure of nerve, it is a failure of intellect, overthought in some places, underthought in others. Clinic, it seems, still hasn’t become the future. But maybe next time.CP