Saturday, March 31, 2007

Mystery men

Score: 5

When Ade Blackburn chants, "Keep yourself hidden," there are at least three other guys who know exactly what he's talking about. See, on stage and in their publicity photos, the four Brits who comprise Clinic wear surgical masks and dress alike, whether that means scrubs or suits or monastic robes. Their songs add to the mystique, with abstruse lyrics and a penchant for rhythm.

Visitations, their fourth album, testifies of an uneasy compromise between methodical studio tweaking and raw instrument bashing. Those contradictory impulses have arisen before, and Clinic have dealt with them on a case-by-case basis.

For 2002's Walking With Thee, the studio took precendence. Two years later, with Winchester Cathedral, Clinic distanced themselves from it, embracing the primal immediacy of laying down tracks live. 2000's Internal Wrangler fed off the friction, bounding from beachside repose to tangles of discord and back. The rub is that Visitations follows the same path as Internal Wrangler, only with less energy.

Oh, the bag of tricks has expanded, to be sure. "Gideon" splices up a cymbal's crash so that it whiffles, similar to the sound Saturday morning cartoons employ when someone stops time. "Children of Kellogg" opens with battle-charge MIDI trumpeting. "The Cape" aims to evoke a market in India or China with its rickshaw shk-shk-shk and snake charmer flute.

Ultimately, however, the album comes across as a less-inspired sequel. "Paradise" follows the chillout blueprint of "Earth Angel." The angular "Tusk," which bears more than a passing resemblance to "C.Q.," gives way to "Internal Wrangler" sound-alike "If You Could Read Your Mind." Clinic even returned to Gareth Jones, who mixed Internal Wrangler but none of their other albums, for Visitations. Yet there's no nocturnal lesson in haunting beauty like "Goodnight Georgie," and instead of sounding wound up amid his whines and trills, Blackburn sounds halfway reserved.

And while that makes Visitations a disappointment, it isn't a drag.

As an organ thrums in "Animal/Human," someone runs a hand over an autoharp like he's sharpening a knife. Just when your skin starts to crawl, guitarist Hartley throws in some wah-wicky-wah strumming a la U2's "Mysterious Ways."

Clinic like these ways.

Near the three-minute mark of "Children of Kellogg," drummer Carl Turney hits a triangle and the song jerks out of its buzz-and-thump furrowing and into a lounge tempo and a field recording of someone sawing wood by hand.

Darned if I know what it means. But I have four guys in mind who might know.

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