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Clinic - Wheeltappers and Shunters Music Album Reviews

The art-punk eccentrics’ first album in six years is a woozy celebration of Britain’s seedy past, and it sounds like nobody other than Clinic.

For 12 years, Clinic’s intrinsic surrealness was counterbalanced by an output that was positively businesslike. Every even-numbered year, the Liverpool band delivered a capsule-sized blast of post-punk psychedelia, as reliably timed as a new Harry Potter film, and perhaps equally inscrutable to outsiders. (“Wingardium Leviosa!” is a Harry Potter spell and “Diggy diggy da mona mon!” is a Clinic lyric, but wouldn’t you believe the reverse was true?) The run began with 2000’s Internal Wrangler—a brash, near-perfect debut whose urgency is communicated via sinister surf licks and blasted-out organ tones—and seemed to wind down with 2012’s Free Reign, a slower, dub-inspired mutation of their sound. At their best, a new Clinic album sounded like absolutely nobody else; at worst, a new Clinic album still sounded like nobody else, but also sounded a little too much like the last Clinic album.

And then, after a 2013 remix album based on Daniel Lopatin’s original Free Reign mixes, Clinic’s prolific zeal mysteriously ceased. More than six years passed without an album. Although the band never announced a break-up or hiatus, it was easy to fear that it had become another cultural casualty of the early 2000s, like MP3 blogs or RAZR phones.

Wheeltappers and Shunters, the group’s first album of new material since 2012, puts such concerns to rest. It’s unmistakably Clinic: deeply eccentric, brief as hell (shorter than the Ramones’ debut!), British to the point of obsession, and steeped in the sort of classic drum machines and synthesizer textures that rarely come within 10 feet of a Discover Weekly playlist. Ade Blackburn’s vocals frequently veer into cryptic mutterings and even gibberish, but here he’s more intelligible than usual: You can clearly hear him enunciate lyrical gems like “Wednesday was a shit day!/Every day is a shit day!” on “D.I.S.C.I.P.L.E.,” a paranoid rave-up that would have been doused in distortion had it been recorded 15 years ago.

This seems to be in the spirit of the project: Wheeltappers is, in Blackburn’s words, “a satirical take on British culture, high and low.” Its songs evoke a seedy British era of traveling circuses, seaside resorts, and smoke-filled nightclubs, and its title references a long-forgotten 1970s variety show. Granted, every Clinic album could be perceived as fetishizing the distant past, given the band’s fondness for vintage instrumentation and retro eccentricity, not limited to 1950s rockabilly, doo wop, and post-punk groove. But this thematic weight gives the songs an overarching purpose and provides some context for Clinic’s typically bizarre interludes (see: “Tiger,” in which Blackburn repeats the phrase “joining the cir-cus” in an ominous incantation). “Be Yourself / Year Of The Sadist,” meanwhile, is a quintessential Clinic ballad, in the vein of Internal Wrangler’s “Distortions” or Funf gem “Christmas.” The song’s swaying melody is a vehicle for the group’s tender side, until the track mutates into an oddball sample of a British town crier hollering in 1971. It’s peculiar, on-theme, and characteristic of the band’s tendency to never let a pretty song get too normal.

Fans may wonder whether Wheeltappers picks up where Free Reign left off or marks a return to the punkish terrain of earlier Clinic. The answer is a bit of both. These songs are jaunty and quick—only one passes the three-minute mark—but full of woozy sonic flourishes and traces of Free Reign’s narcotic groove. (Check out “Ferryboat of the Mind,” which, in both title and sound, evokes a dubby journey down a cartoon river.) The album was mixed by Dilip Harris, who is known for work with predominantly electronic acts like Mount Kimbie and who likely warrants some credit for this record’s experimental undercurrent. Headphone listening is encouraged—especially with “Complex,” which throbs along on a drum-machine pulse immediately reminiscent of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” or “New Equations (at the Copacabana),” in which Blackburn’s heavily processed vocals form a foggy détente with what sound like the echoes of an autoharp (but may, in fact, be something more obscure, knowing this crew).

These are novel variations on the familiar Clinic sound. Some, like the queasy synth refrain in “Rubber Bullets,” work less well than others. And some of the melodies seem rather thin, considering the band had six years to generate them (looking at you, “Mirage” and “Rejoice!”). That’s an ancient weakness of the group, and Wheeltappers and Shunters is nothing if not steeped in the past. “The good old days, the good old ways,” Blackburn mutters on “Complex,” his voice coated in sarcasm. Britain’s past is full of sleaze, but at least it brought us Clinic.

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