Four out of five Radiohead members can’t be wrong. In Spin‘s recent year-ender, no less than 80 percent of our little kid-a’s ranked little-known loopy Liverpudlians Clinic among their top five faves (bassist Colin Greenwood, the lone dissenter, seems to be going through some sort of classical phase), and it’s easy to see why they’re just about the only band Radiohead will endorse these days that isn’t on Warp Records. That’s cuz Clinic are the band Radiohead wish they could be: enigmatic, capable of effortlessly extracting accessible tunes out of abstract environments (and vice versa), and best of all, completely faceless. Though in Clinic’s case, the low public profile has as much to do with couture as contempt: They always appear in public cloaked in surgical masks and Sgt. Pepper coats. Which, let’s face it, is a much a more efficient way of telling the NME to “piss off” than making a dreary tour documentary about fidgeting uncomfortably in front of the foreign press.
But if Radiohead admire Clinic’s spirit, the two couldn’t be further removed sonically—for starters, Clinic prefer their Pink Floyd as a “Lucifer Sam”-style U.F.O. Club meltdown, while Thommy’s boys like theirs blown up Wall-size. That’s not to imply Clinic fancy themselves minimalists—they do big things with little pieces. Their 1999 inaugural single, “I.P.C. Subeditors Dictate Our Youth,” hijacked the same kick-drum intro the Jesus and Mary Chain swiped from the Ronettes on Psychocandy, but where the Reid brothers were hell-bent on bulldozing Spector’s wall o’ sound, Clinic work at building up from the Mary Chain’s trash-canned template.
Which makes trawling through Internal Wrangler—14 tracks compacted into 31 minutes—as much of a crapshoot as building a Cadillac from a junkyard, with the prize finds purposely scattered amid some cosmic slop: the beatnik bongo bop of “Voodoo Wop,” the locomotive romper-stomper “C.Q.,” and the Sonic Youth spy theme interlude “Hippy Death Suite” (Thurston and Roger Moore, together at last). But sift past the scraps and you’ll find Clinic’s definitive decon/reconstructions: “The Return of Evil Bill” chops the two-note riff of “My Generation” in half while doubling the speed, adding a sultry melodica refrain that only makes the song’s drive more menacing; the title track straps itself to a pulsating bass riff that drops straight from Can’s “Mother Sky” smack-dab in the middle of a mod-fuck explosion.
But while Internal Wrangler‘s various naughty bits are ultimately held together by some omnipresent fuzz-organ weirdness that sounds like it came from an original copy of “96 Tears” left out in the sun too long, Clinic’s offices aren’t strictly confined to garageland. “2nd Foot Stomp” suggests a glittery sci-fi/doo-wop ditty that’s pure Add N to T. Re(X), while “The Second Line” boasts the album’s most surprising device: a genuine ass-slappin’ booty-beat, capped with a chorus that could very well be a nod to LL Cool J’s “Phenomenon.” Still, it would help if you could understand what the hell frontman Ade Blackburn is saying—while the man is English, that don’t mean he always speaks it. At his most leisurely, he comes off like Flaming Lip Wayne Coyne after 12 shots of JD; at his most fervent, he’s a Japanese color commentator calling a particularly intense table-tennis match.
But then, Blackburn’s indecipherability could very well be just a ruse for the stone-cold-sober knockout he delivers nine rounds in. “Distortions”—the only song here that doesn’t feature any—makes for a far more economical summation of the third Velvet Underground album than your Galaxie 500 box set, matching the solemnity of “Pale Blue Eyes” and the fadeout drones of “What Goes On” with reconfigured lyrics to “Candy Says,” for a hymn that’s either about self-administered abortions (“I want this out, not in me”) or murder fantasies (“I’ve pictured you in coffins”), but most likely is just some fuckup’s idea of a love song. This is what should’ve been playing when Ed Norton and Helena Bonham Carter watch the skyscrapers fall in Fight Club.
In a way, what Internal Wrangler does with its roll call of scattershot reference points is not unlike what Pavement did to a similar checklist on Slanted and Enchanted in ’92. Instead of treating their avant-guardians with the sacramental reverence most of their adherents feel they blindly deserve, Clinic take them for what they really are: discarded rock-history derelicts, primed and ready for the taking, subject to the open-season treatment. And from that sacrilegious starting point, they build something worth revering.
In the case of Thom Yorke’s other obsession du jour—Sigur Rós—reverence seems almost inherent. Ever since copies of their 1999 Icelandic chart-topper, Agætis Byrjun, began floating to these shores in late 2000, hipster record stores have faced a supply shortage worse than a third-world food bank’s. You’d think that Kevin Shields had finally made another My Bloody Valentine album—which, in essence, is what Sigur Rós have done for him (albeit one played at 16 rpm). While equally media shy, the Reykjavík quartet are Clinic’s inverse: Methodically graceful, smoothed-over, and though Sigur’s album is 40 minutes longer than Clinic’s, it feels far less exhausting. And to top it off, singer-guitarist Jón Birgisson’s androgyne phonetics—a combination of Icelandic and his own made-up dialect, dubbed “Hopelandic”—somehow make more sense than Clinic’s Anglo-mangling.
As their recent appearance on the cover of The Wire attests, Sigur Rós have made shoegazing acceptable for chin-strokers. But they’re hardly PowerBook-packin’ performer types. Agætis Byrjun is steep(l)ed in cathedral-sized grandeur, choral crescendos, stratospheric production, and seismic sonic booms—Jón even transmits his drones via violin bow, though he claims he’s never seen The Song Remains the Same—but it’s all executed in a tastefully languid manner that would make even the most baked Spiritualized fans peer down upon their Converse All-Stars and wink in approval without disrupting the buzz.
Many have attributed Sigur’s everything-floes sensation to their homeland’s abundance of the cold hard stuff. But if anything, this music is all about melting: be it your heart, your cynical streak, or—if you crank the awesome symphonic-screech freak-out on the 11-minute “Vior vel tl Loftarasa” really loudly on the Blaupunkt—the frost on your windshield. Plus, THOM YORKE THINKS THEY’RE REALLY COOL!