Live: The Clean stays youthful at the Echo
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The Clean at the Echo review: The New Zealand band still packs energy, especially when it performs ‘Tally Ho.’
When the Clean played its first number Wednesday night at the Echo, “Tally Ho” didn’t sound 31 years old.
That’s partly because there’s a Peter Pan, “forever young” quality to the song’s jangly-pop propulsiveness. The New Zealand band members were teenagers when they made “Tally Ho,” and they become teenagers when they play it.
But it’s also because, for most ears, the song’s still a discovery. Even in its home country, the Clean is only an underground legend, and it’s enjoyed mere waves of cult success abroad.
In recent years, the Clean has been discovered by devoted Pitchfork-wielding connoisseurs, in part because taste-making indie label Merge (home of Arcade Fire and M. Ward) released its last album, 2009’s “Mister Pop.” The pogoing fans at the Echo sang along to “Tally Ho,” but it was probably the first time most of them had heard it live, considering the Clean has played only a handful of stateside dates in its lifetime.
Like the Velvets or the Feelies, two bands its intricately strummed sound references, the Clean is a small but important band.
Brothers David and Hamish Kilgour and bassist Robert Scott (they share vocal duties) were one of the first Kiwi punk outfits and the progenitors of what became known as the Dunedin, or Flying Nun, sound. In the 1980s, primarily in the quiet South Island city of Dunedin, such bands as the Verlaines, Chills and Bored Games created guitar-driven pop ditties undercut by art-noise drone. “Tally Ho” was the debut release of the Flying Nun label, which quickly became one of the most consistently interesting indies in the world, thanks to the unique hothouse character of its local scene.
The quirky intensity of the Clean’s sound remained undiminished at the Echo. Like the Who or the Jam, the power trio creates an impressive amount of sound with just three instruments, no backing tracks or presets. They play simple, repetitive, minor-key songs but fill them with chiming overtones and almost impossibly fast density referents. Scott doesn’t play a lot of notes, but he plucks each one multiple times, his right hand a blur. On such songs as “Some One,” Hamish’s high-hat is in perpetual motion. A muscular machine, the drummer kicks his bass so hard it slides across the stage. (They were playing on borrowed equipment.) His snare is a sharply snapped metronome.
There’s a delicious tension between the song’s melancholy structures and their nervous, kinetic energy. Usually that tension explodes in David’s Stratocaster soliloquies. He’s a truly great guitarist, up there with Tom Verlaine and Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, able to pluck soaring leads while also maintaining a strumming rhythm, playing squall and response with himself.
The Clean’s sound thrives on tightness, and perhaps because the performers have lived in separate countries for years (Hamish moved to New York in the 1990s) and don’t get to practice a lot, they were a bit sloppy.
They fumbled the ending of “Tally Ho,” looked at one another and laughed as only friends who have played together for decades can. They performed lots of early songs, including a transcendent “Anything Could Happen,” and cuts from their excellent 1990 album “Vehicle,” along with a few tracks from “Mister Pop.” With Scott wearing a battered straw fedora and David’s bandanna sweatband slipping down his forehead, they looked a bit like the kind of Down Under yokels English snobs have always dismissed their former colonists as. That’s Britain’s loss.
When it doesn’t hone its pop-writing skills, the Clean’s sound can get repetitive. But when it works, it’s a band that elicits intense passion. A confession: As a twentywhatever, I was obsessed enough with the Dunedin sound that in 1990 I flew to New Zealand and saw the Clean perform with protopunk Chris Knox and the Straitjacket Fits in the farming burg of Palmerston North, among other shows. By that point, the Clean was already on its second act, having broken up for much of the 1980s and recently reunited. Singing about “Getting Older” when just starting out, there’s a world-weary quality built into the Clean’s DNA. Now that the band really has gotten older, that ennui still doesn’t enervate — it energizes.
-- Evelyn McDonnell