Just what is it that Clinic are so afraid of? Handpicked opening act for Radiohead, darlings of the NME, these fortunate sons of Liverpool have gone and made a concept album about paralytic fear. Walking With Thee, their second LP, supplants love and sex and chemicals—pop’s chronic ailments—with agoraphobia and claustrophobia and panic attacks. Maybe ‘head trauma is contagious, or maybe they’ve got the celebrity quakes—inklings of scenester fatigue flicker here and there (one song flinches away from “the people in the know”), and surely blokes who run about in doctor’s masks must have recognition issues. For his part, frontman Ade Blackburn (who does give a lot of interviews, hmm) has said he prefers Clinic to remain a “cult band.” Which could mean that he wants to be that group you saw play Fall covers at your block’s dive bar last Tuesday, or he wants to be the White Stripes (who just broke Billboard‘s Top 200, yeah!).
Clinic’s full-length debut, Internal Wrangler, was a basement-bonanza pile dive, an abstract-expressionist pastiche of dub electronica and ’60s mod garage and jittery Krautrock. Having raided and pillaged all those rough-and-ready cellar nuggets, they quietly maneuver toward tidier quarters on Walking With Thee‘s opener, “Harmony”: everything in its right place. Rather than hissing and clawing at each other, the elements enter and exit in an orderly fashion: a scrubbed bass here, a glowingly exfoliated synth there, a humming melodica houseguest strolling in from a morning swim. Blackburn, whinnying like the saucer-eyed love child of Thom Yorke and Daniel Johnston, actually bothers to enunciate—turns out he believes in Christmas and daring to dream.
Have our nervous nellies been internally wrangled by serotonin reuptake inhibitors? Fortunately for us, soon they’re sacking the medicine cabinet for uppers and assuming the fetal position inside the linen closet. Blackburn starts swallowing his tongue again (shrieking “NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!” on the Mysterians-meets-Mission of Burma title track) and the pacing melodica gets the DTs, as song after song invokes suffocating domestic clutches. On “Mr. Moonlight,” the Clinicians assemble like the Flowers in the Attic captives, vitamin D-deprived and hallucinating pachyderm escape routes: “The elephants came out/Now you can dismount/With the family warmth that binds your home.” A deceptive waltz-time lullaby, “For the Wars” rock-a-byes with Fender Rhodes piano and the gentle tapping of a cymbal before Blackburn confirms imminent cataclysm: “You’re all made up for the wars.” In “Sunlight Bathes Our Home,” the hothouse walls shrink further: Blackburn whinges hopelessly about “keeping our life and limbs together” before he’s trampled by vomiting guitars; far away, an ominous thump-thump suggests some crazed homemaker banging her head against the drywall. Those surgical masks aren’t an affectation—they’re borrowed from Julianne Moore’s stash in Safe.
Norwich’s Kaito seem breezily immune to existential illness, though they share plenty else with their fellow distortion consortium Clinic: splattercore rhythmic sense, warmth for the fuzzy, disarmingly childlike trappings (seesaws, Speak ‘N Spell, a “big scary monster in my bad dream”). Sure, lead singer Nikki Colk asks to be killed on “Shoot Shoot,” but with the tongue-out brattiness of a tomboy trying out her first curse word. The neuroses on the Montigola Underground EP largely stem from liking boys and wondering if they like you back—or so it would seem, since Colk’s diary entries are often illegible. She’s as indifferent toward consonants as Ade Blackburn, her cracked little-girl trill veering between Björk’s coquettish warble and Kathleen Hanna’s clarion-bell shout. Though Kaito’s moppety mischief-making sometimes betrays a rote when-mum’s-away eagerness for bouncing on magic pedals and impaling axes in speakers, it’s always party music—directly descended from Liliput. (In fact, they sometimes spell their name kaitO, just as Liliput preferred LiLiPUT, and even Kaito’s name sounds a lot like Klaudia Schiff’s yelping refrain in “Nighttoad.”)
Montigola Underground, a filler-augmented sampler of last year’s long-player, You’ve Seen Us . . . You Must Have Seen Us, climaxes with “Go”: the kaleidoscopic sound of all the kids in a video-game parlor breaking their machines’ records simultaneously. Colk rises like a preteen Lady of the Lake over the cacophony, siren-calling with watery lungs, “IIIIIIII kahn shhheeeeee yyuhhhhh,” before the guitars succumb to seizures and Dieta Quantrill puts a boot through his bass drum and all the little Galaga crusaders start screaming “GO!” You’ve Seen Us boasts even more ecstatic goonie marauding: the NME-approved single “Catnap,” a blurry photocopy of Blur’s “Song 2” cut-and-pasted into the riot-grrrl songbook; the ADD stomp “Thwipside,” which renders insomniac frustration as artillery fire and raining bombs. Leave the shell shock to the grownups —Kaito’s all made up for the wars.
Clinic play the Bowery Ballroom April 2 and 4 and Maxwell’s April 3.