f you were to listen to Winchester Cathedral once and make a snap judgment, you could mistakenly conclude that it’s reheated leftovers of the sound Clinic put together on Walking With Thee (itself a quantum leap forward from their charming but rough debut). There’s nothing here with the specific power of “Walking With Thee”, “The Equaliser” or “Mr. Moonlight”, but then, there was nothing there with the power of “Circle Of Fifths”, “Anne” or “WDYYB”. Both records are, loosely speaking, assembled from the same parts; but anyone who’s familiar with Lego can tell you how far that’ll get you.
But Brian Eno’s 68th oblique strategy is instructive here: “Repetition is a form a change”, because Clinic is using parts that no one else seems interested in. And that’s part of the reason Walking With Thee was one of the very best albums released in 2002 and the one with which Clinic proved themselves to be one of the finest rock bands extant. How many bands could make clarinet, melodica, piano, wind chimes and the oft-mocked shaker a vital part of their music, and turn out jittery, muddied amphetamine rock and haunted circular reveries with them? A band as talented and enjoyable as Clinic should be allowed to distill and advance their sound without getting tarred with the brush of stagnancy. Just as Rocket To Russia showed a small but crucial move ahead from The Ramones, so does Winchester Cathedral build on Clinic’s past works.
All of which would be purely academic if the record wasn’t so damn good. Exhibit A is “Falstaff”. Although immediately identifiable as Clinic, its almost jazzy swing is a step forward, complete with a killer chorus. The verses sound like a 1950’s ballad, and the result ranks up there with the Hives’ “Diabolic Scheme” and the Strokes’ “Under Control” as examples of a prickly band expanding without losing their power.
And “Falstaff” isn’t the only place where Clinic seems to be pursuing a doctrine of glasnost. Walking With Thee was magnificently icy even when frenzied, right down to the primitivist abstract art on the front. Winchester Cathedral, with its cover image of the sun through someone’s open fingers, has a warmer tone while stopping short of smiling friendliness. It’s much better paced than its predecessor to boot, sequencing being a minor flaw in the earlier record, and more tightly packed weighing in at thirty-six minutes and change. There are a few instrumentals but they’re vastly improved from Clinic’s earlier efforts; both the reeling “Vertical Take Off In Egypt” and the insistent “Fingers” are easily among the best songs here.
And let’s not forget one of the group’s more unique assets: Ade Blackburn’s voice. Blackburn possesses the finest hiss in music today, his tone so finely balanced between the menacing and the menaced that it’s impossible to tell whether we should be scared or reassured. Moreover, he can mewl, gibber, howl and chant like no one in music today. His vocals are much more understandable here, but only in snippets, adding to the kaleidoscopic whirl of Winchester Cathedral. From the gentle longing of “Home” to the crouched vehemence with which he sings “Thank You (For Living)” (rendering questions on the sincerity of the title academic) he gives another bravura performance, ably backed up by the dexterous instrumental switching and pitch-perfect backing vocals of the rest of the band. Not only are Hartley’s guitars positively corrosive, and not only do Carl Turney and Brian Campbell form the only rock rhythm section I can think of for whom “unintuitive” is a compliment (check out “Country Mile”), but all four members of the band double up on other instruments as needed.
All of the above might lead you to think that this is po-faced art-rock. But something to keep in mind when approaching Clinic is the band’s repeated insistence that what they do is, to them at least, party music. That’s how they work; there’s a joy in even Clinic’s darkest songs that render them infectious. If more parties were soundtracked by Clinic, Winchester Cathedral especially, the world would be a more interesting place; until then, fans have the group’s most cohesive, best disc to date.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM’S ALBUM OF THE WEEK – AUGUST 22 – AUGUST 29, 2004