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It came from nowhere

Native weirdness from The Clean and Devendra Banhart


The Clean
Merge Records

Is it possible for a band to have too many influences? I certainly think so—too many of the wrong kind, anyway. Too many of the bland but commercially successful MTV influences drenching the world like so much acid rain, steadily eroding whatever isolated pockets of primative originality still exist. We can certainly agree that too many bands are cribbing too heavily from secondary sources, not primary ones, which makes for generic music as surely as it makes for a lazy research paper.

The issue of influences—which ones are okay, which ones aren’t—is naturally a contentious and highly subjective one. Still, why is it—as has been noted millions of times in these pages and elsewhere—that kids who grow up in musical backwaters with dull record stores and no all-ages shows and crappy radio stations often seem to conjure the most strikingly original music out of thin air? Look at the Shaggs, for Pete’s sake—three farm girls from rural New Hampshire whose music pitted a love of Paul Revere and the Raiders against complete instrumental ineptitude to produce something truly charming and one-of-a-kind? Or why, in the case of the Langley Schools Music Project, did it take a gymnasium full of school kids from rural British Columbia to uncover some hidden Walt Whitman truths in two-track recordings of ’70s radio fodder that just seemed like schmaltz in the original Fleetwood Mac and Neil Diamond versions?

Beethoven once said this: “Music is the one incorporeal entrance into higher worlds of knowledge which comprehends mankind, but which mankind cannot comprehend.” A close reading of that quotation suggests that virtuosity and vision are scarcely more reliable tools for knowing the unknowable than clumsiness and dumb luck. It certainly suggests, at least to me, that a cocky sonofabitch like Wynton Marsalis is no more or less likely to find enlightenment just for thinking he’s entitled to it than a pack of plucky teenagers growing up in the relative boondocks of New Zealand in the early ’80s.

Stumbling across the servants’ entrance to this musical Parthenon, The Clean probably didn’t even know what it was until Merge Records explained it to them by putting out this anthology. Although they spent almost as much time broken up as together, members of The Clean put New Zealand on the indie map in a number of ways. In the first place, they enjoyed a good degree of radio play in their home country when New Zealand didn’t have much in the way of a homegrown independent pop scene. Members also played in Clean-related projects like The Bats and Bailter Space that were popular in indie circles stateside when princes of jangle REM were still similarly underground favorites. Finally, Flying Nun Records founder Roger Shephard initially started his label as a way to release The Clean’s first single, “Tally Ho,” thus giving other fledgling New Zealand acts both a musical blueprint and a flagship domestic label to rally around.

What you get here is a two-disc set of some of the scrappiest, catchiest pop tunes ever to precipitate out of the austral ethers of New Zealand. Disc one starts off appropriately with the ridiculously catchy, Farfisa-driven “Tally Ho!” and runs gamely through 22 mostly upbeat numbers like “Thumbs Off,” “Side On,” and “Slug Song.” The enthusiasm is relentless and unmistakable.

Disc two is the more polished-sounding of the two, but it still preserves The Clean’s distinctive, jangly sound and reedy vocals. Songs from the Vehicle LP, recorded after the band reunited in 1988 after a long hiatus, sound labored over in the studio compared to the gems in the rough scattered over disc one, but not in an alienating or overreaching kind of way. The liner notes for the set are fairly annoying—childishly handwritten and doodled all over—but they contribute to the overall amateurish charm of the package. At least no one got all weepy and sentimental in writing up an encomium for this plucky trio, and the music is largely left to speak for itself.Devendra Banhart
Oh Me Oh My
Young God Records
This reminds me so intensely of something I’ve heard in the past two years, but I’m jiggered if I can remember what it is. Which is probably just as well—whatever it was, I dimly recall it was something way weirder and creepier than I was prepared to let cross my musical borders without a lengthy quarantine. Something I wanted to listen to in carefully controlled circumstances, like volunteering for a clinical test of some potentially devastating new kind of LSD as opposed to just bringing it along on a camping trip. Not the religious strangeness of the singing Danielson Familie, but something like that.

Anyway: Holy crap is Devendra Banhart ever compelling in his weirdness. The vocals on Oh Me Oh My are double-tracked—on a four-track recording—with Banhart’s acoustic plucking and bashing as the only other musical presence besides tape hiss. And the tape hiss on this recording is practically its own instrument. It sets the mood, anyway. Oh Me Oh My sounds like a field recording, e.g. Alan Lomax going around the South digging up indigenous Delta blues recordings, only in this case it’s ex-Swans member Michael Gira feathering his label’s nest with field recordings of Southern sanitaria for musically disturbed children where the inmates have taken over the asylum. Banhart sings in a nasal quaver that slices right through whatever veneer of sanity the listener clings to going into the experience, and when the surreal lyrics really get loose in your psyche it’s pretty much game over. What kind of mind-control cult did I accidentally join by listening to this? Extraordinarily freaky stuff.

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