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The Clean with Times New Viking at the Rock and Roll Hotel, Thursday, June 7

When I first started to explore New Zealand indie rock, I was staggered by three things: 1) the sheer number of amazing bands; 2) the inter-relatedness of those bands; and 3) the distinctiveness of the NZ indie pop sound. Flying Nun, the legendary NZ record label, was as consistent in sound as Postcard Records and their “Sound of Young Scotland.” The Clean sit at the center of the NZ sound, with DNA shared with the Chills, the Bats, and Bailter Space, to name but a few related bands. But it still took me a while to appreciate them.

Perhaps part of it is their status as Living Legends – a band beloved by musicians and music critics, but without ever really puncturing the membrane of the public consciousness. I think it might’ve been the sheer scale of their output that kept me at bay. I look back at that standoffishness with bemusement –it took the purchase of their exquisite Anthology on double CD that finally blew my mind. The songs are marvelously simple, but exquisitely so – it’s easy to hear why they’re a seminal influence on dozens of indie bands (one can hardly imagine the Shins existing without the Clean) – and single-handedly inventing C86 (probably best described as “twee” to you), and regularly name-checked by Pavement, Sonic Youth, and Yo La Tengo. The joy of a song like “Billy Too” is simply uncontainable, and yet there is
so much more to the band – a full four decades of solid songs and side projects galore.

So, all this to say that I was very, very nervous about seeing the Clean live. Would they be good live? If so, would I be up to reviewing them? And, if they were terrible, what would I say?

Unlike so many reformed bands, there’s something utterly effortless and matter-of-fact about how the avuncular bassist Robert Scott and the brothers Hamish (on drums and vocals) and David (guitar and vocals), the brothers Kilgour take the stage. The Clean are all wearing well-worn floppy hats and comfy clothes, like a bunch of New Zealand beach bums dads who’ve picked up instruments to keep themselves amused. And yet, from the very first notes of the very first song, they demonstrate a skill – a keen ear for melody, a lightness and a grace – that truly and fully stuns me.

I mean, there really was that moment when I met Scott upstairs, and he was sitting there at the merch table writing out the set list, where I thought – this is a musical legend? I hand over my copy of “Tally Ho,” asking humbly if he’ll sign it, and he expresses real surprise and joy at seeing such an old and rare artifact. He hops right up and promises to have the Kilgours sign it and I can barely speak. “Thanks,” I mutter, as he toddles off, coming back a few minutes later. He comes back and I ask if I can photograph the set list to help in reviewing the show. He smiles broadly, saying, “Sure, but it’s just a guide – no promises that we’ll get around to playing any of those songs.” Fair warning, then.

It’s just the three of them, the Kilgours and Scott, up on stage – they amble on and thank everyone – the opener, people who let them borrow their instruments, the crows – and break right in to “Fish,” a spaghetti-noir instrumental with a drum machine complementing Hamish’s amazing drumming and jaw-droppingly beautiful guitar. It’s then into “Hold onto the Rail,” with lovely vocals from all three of them – it’s ridiculous and ramshackle, and it shouldn’t work, but it does. I’m grinning, as are just about everyone I can see. The Hotel is ridiculously slammed, and the older folks are outnumbered by the young folks, greatly heartening me.

“Secret Place” is next, like a sadder “Billy Too,” pulls at the heartstrings before “Golden Crown” explodes with brilliant, chiming guitars, building and building to a gorgeous end. They go a bit heavy on the politics (anti-Bush – guys, it’s 2012?), but the music is lovely. “Sad Eyed Lady” – no, wait, I think it’s “Outside the Cage” (yeah, shit – the setlist is less helpful now). Lovely keyboards wash over the song in a droney, Velvet Underground-ish dream song, with a thrashing end (so, definitely “Cage,” then). “Too Much Violence” follows, with an egg-shake keeping time, Pavement being invented before your ears, but a much fuller sound than the album version. So far, so good. But we haven’t heard anything yet.

David is pointing a video camera at the drummer before they play what really is the center-point of the evening – where it changes from something that’s making me smile to something very, very special. “Point That Thing Somewhere Else” – a thirty-year old song – sounds like something that could’ve been written last week, and would propel that band to the indie firmament in a heartbeat. NZ’s Neu? Stereolab? It’s breathtaking, and I am truly awestruck.

I won’t go on a song-by song from here. They play “Oddity,” and it’s bloody marvelous, sing-along joy; “Blue” gets a trot out, and I could swear I’m hearing Colin Newman on vocals. But it’s the final song of the proper set that makes me lose my shit – “Tally Ho” comes chiming out, and, stunningly, I’m one of five or six people in the Hotel singing along – and that includes the band. WTF? They go off, and come back for a lovely, if too brief, encore. I’m elated, euphoric; not even aware that the next twenty four hours will be among the weirdest of my professional career. But at least I had the Clean.

Oh, Times New Viking opened. With 13 songs. I think if they’d opened for almost anyone else, I would have written a very positive review, full of admiration for their resolute amateurishness, they’re delightful out-of-tune, shambolic play. But they opened for the Clean. After about five songs, I was a happy; after ten, I was less so, and after a dozen, I was ready to go unplug their stuff for them (and set it all on fire).

Boy-girl shared vocals, with a drummer, and every song ended up sounding exactly the same. Blah, blah, blah, we’re out of tune, all our songs are all about a minute forty-five, blah, blah, blah. Think the Fiery Furnaces, but with fewer melodies. Sorry, but the Clean’s occasional tunelessness comes from a kind of irrefutable genius. TNV’s sounds like it comes from a lack of skill. Some advice: just because you CAN play with your idols, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. No, thank you.

Oh, and once again, amazing service from one of my favorite bartenders. Just get the damn Fat Tire in cans downstairs. The beer is good enough on the roof to make me never want to order downstairs.