Album Review: The Clean – Mister Pop

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When CoS noted Merge Records’ fascination with 90s indie rock bands, it noted the obvious: Merge has a crush (a la Pepé Le Pew) on rock history — and we love them for it. (And let’s not forget that Merge shows equal love to the 80s scene!) These guys make it a point to educate us while keeping it relevant with offerings like Outer South from Mr. Oberst and M. Ward’s Hold Time.

In this spirit, let’s continue the history lesson, shall we? Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, if you were a Kiwi and a punker, you needed no introduction to The Clean. More The Clash, than say, The Sex Pistols in sound, The Clean had the definite article in its name and the equally ubiquitous New Wave calling card of frenetic organ. (Remember “Radio Radio”?) Their first major single, “Tally Ho”, to this day remains a staple of punk name-dropping when making necessary comparisons; a couple of years later, The Clean was no more — at least for the time being. And while The Clean has come back here and there to scatter a couple more songs our way, the band starts to resemble The Sex Pistols, come to think of it, in their place in history: a band of the moment rather than an era.

So nearly a decade since their last release, The Clean gives us Mister Pop in 2009, and it comes as no surprise that Mister Pop sounds like a reunion record rather than an album from a band (like R.E.M.) that has consistently toured and played together over the years. Coincidentally, Mister Pop sounds a bit like R.E.M. circa 1989-1992 — just as Alternative Rock and the lighter AAA were starting to be called just that, Alternative Rock, rather than being lumped in with New Wave as part of the “punk family tree.” Close your eyes while listening to tracks like “Factory Man” on Mister Pop, and you may hear Automatic for the People: Vol. 2. Other bands of that era, Miracle Legion for example, could also lay claim to several of the tracks on the album.

Mister Pop is not a one-to-one comparison, however, with the above. “Tensile” and the instrumental “Moonjumper” include overlapping fuzz, noise, and tone due to everything from modulated vocals to violin, all of it being invigorating. “All Those Notes” sways in flange and reverb (minus the wall of distortion) of Shoegaze. With the resurgence of My Bloody Valentine, such songstering is as cogent as ever.

While the album may sound like it’s from a different era at times, it isn’t a slipshod effort — something thrown together by over-the-hill musicians to make a buck. A keen eye will note that both tracks one and six are instrumentals, and if one were to be listening to Mister Pop on vinyl, that would mean both the A-side and B-side would start with an instrumental. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Merge will currently be releasing Mister Pop on vinyl.) This would also be a good spot at which to note that The Clean has made it a point on the album to showcase the musicianship rather than the vocals. Much of the runtime goes without lyrics, and this calculated move benefits the album. Mister Pop is a mood piece, and overly chatty songs could have rendered the album FUBAR.

Mister Pop won’t gather any new fans into the fold for The Clean, but it will continue the mostly admirable legacy of a band that pops up on the musical radar from time to time. This isn’t an embarrassing album that breeds sympathy for a band long since past its expiration date, and let’s collectively breathe a sigh of relief for that; sadly, neither does Mister Pop feel like a breath of fresh air.

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Mister Pop Album Review: The Clean   Mister Pop