Music Features

Overlooked Albums #40: The Clean - Vehicle

The Clean’s first full-length release came after a reunion tour. The New Zealand band had formed back in 1978, just as punk’s seismic wave was peaking in America and the UK. Yet the group, virtually isolated in their corner of the world, never joined the Rotten-come-lately brigades. They had their own sound, which ignited the NZ music scene and put Flying Nun Records on the map with Tally Ho, a hit that was followed by two high-charting EPs. Success came at a price, and the tour-weary band called it quits in 1982, its founding members opting to focus their energies elsewhere, keeping themselves active for most of the eighties in different line-ups. They got back together in 1989, when the youth movement had long been co-opted into profitable formula and trendy haircuts and pointy bustiers guaranteed a Top of the Pops spot. The Clean, however, remained staunchly independent.

Vehicle came to be thanks to Geoff Travis of Rough Trade, who saw the reformed band play in London. The group landed a deal with the label on the strength of their new material, a significant vote of confidence. It meant that the sleeper cell of Robert Scott and brothers David and Hamish Kilgour, now veterans of Dunedin music scene, could still muster an invigorating racket. The new music had body and vitality; the DNA was still there, comprised of equal parts garage grit, pop sensibility, and chiming guitars. The resulting album wasn’t a slick move to cash in on past glories but a thrilling new chapter.

The Clean’s sound exists in its own realm. The angst-ridden agitprop of UK punk isn’t for them. Their pace is the unhurried tempo of late-period Velvets; their themes, in songs like I Wait Around and Bye Bye, are mostly about love and relationships--nothing earth-shattering, but something you’d want to hear at the pub after and ale or two and maybe join in the chorus. What draws you in closer is the band dynamics. Drummer Hamish Kilgour comes from the Moe Tucker school, keeping a steady, forceful bashing with economic frills. The guitar and bass swirl around it like gale winds, interconnecting to build rippling waves. David Kilgour’s guitar style is far from conventional, opting for rapid picking to create mandolin tremolo effects and eschewing blues riffs for oblique accents and lightning blasts. There aren’t many overdubs, so nothing here is overshined for Top 40 appeal; what we get is the pure sound of three good musicians working in perfect sync.

According to band members, the songs are built organically out of jam sessions, yet there’s always a gravitational pull towards structure and melody; songs like Draw(ing) to a W(ho)le and Big Soft Punch have a catchy easiness that etches right away in your memory banks. Dunes offers a new take on beach music, with a choppy, jittery guitar attack that resembles early Talking Heads. Getting to You and Big Cat hark back to the organ sound of the group’s first singles, the influence of 60s garage and early psychedelic groups at its strongest here--then again, most of the album’s tracks would fit well in a Nuggets package.

The Clean’s acoustic sound is muscular. The guitar strokes are broad on Home, with even the single-string phrases plucked hard; yet the verses are summery and breezy, as if Chad and Jeremy had grown brass balls. I Can See and Gem, by contrast, are gloomy and existential, offering new thematic vistas that would be explored on later albums along with new sonic routes.

Vehicle raised the band’s profile as a creative force, captured the attention of international listeners, and put a spotlight on New Zealand’s indie scene. From then on, each new release generates massive anticipation.

With just five albums under their name, The Clean’s output has been sporadic, but there’s a reason for this: The band members have never abandoned their commitments to other lineups and individual projects. Robert Scott is a founding member of The Bats; Hamish Kilgour lives in New York and records there; David Kilgour has split his time between solo and group work, his most recent release an album with The Heavy 8’s. These outlets of expression have made the creative roots stronger. There’s an ever-expanding musical community behind these Dunedin masters, their DYI ethic a workable model that is shared with a new generation. Still, The Clean’s story isn’t over. Just last month they played a series of tour dates in Australia to thrilled audiences, and one hopes there’ll be more touring ahead. As for new recordings, anything could happen.