Way before the Strokes even thought of sounding like VU, there was the Clean.
They essentially founded the venerable New Zealand scene, their first release initiated the esteemed Flying Nun label, and their irresistible blend of surf guitars and Velvet street smarts hallmarked a sound that would carry on for years, spawning a handful of seminal post-punk/indie rock acts (the short list includes the Bats, Bailter Space, and Mad Scene) and inspiring even more. History lessons matter less and less when old-timers can't keep their chops up, but that's not a concern here. Comparable to the latest stellar release by the Go-Betweens, the Clean's "reunion" effort feels like coming home and finding your old room tidy, your Smiths posters still on the wall, and the Feelies' Crazy Rhythms cued up on the old turntable. Made up of eclectic instrumental tracks and hard-biting, pop-flavored serpents, the entire record sails by like an early fall day that you hope will never end. Of the standouts, "Silence or Something Else," sounds like Morrissey covering R.E.M.'s "Imitation of Life." By the time "Aho," the 12th track, kicks in, your fierce attraction to the Clean surges with a renewed enthusiasm; the dizzying, spiraling guitar lines and simple vocal melodies (sometimes "Oh ho/whoa oh/oh ho" says so much) provide an energizing lift at the precise moment when lesser albums and less motivated songwriters would have called it a day. And because cake tastes better with the icing, Yo La Tengo's Georgia and Ira show up on a couple tracks. The Clean have stayed hungry, have you? Laura Learmonth
NEW END ORIGINAL
Ex-Far architect makes Feel Bad rock feel so right.
"Back off, or someone will die here." It's the harsh clich頠 of a disposable, ski-masked Eastwood villain. When Jonah Matranga purrs it as a come-on in "Hostage," the threat gets a flicker of perverse vitality; when he bellows it minutes later inside an avalanche of stiletto-sharp downstrokes, it gets 10,000 volts of truth. That's the sole excursion into pop anathema on Thriller, an otherwise uplifting, breezy rock fix. NEO is ostensibly a post-punk supergroup (featuring members of Texas is the Reason, Split Lip and Far), but at least two of this debut's tracks were previously recorded by Matranga in the guise of solo project Onelinedrawing (get cracking, anagram fans). His bittersweet charm is pervasive. The quirky, state- of-the-world lament "Better Than This" loops into an almost punny outro: "I'm better than nothing and nothing is better than this." Leadoff cannonballs "Lukewarm" and "14 to 41" are simply about getting old enough to realize that you haven't contributed dick to the world. "My birthday," Matranga huffs in the latter, "is my worst day." Lines like those look kinda lame in print, resonate brightly performed by a man and his acoustic, and goddamn shred in a full-fledged rock band. Andrew Bonazelli
The Glow Pt. 2
It Was Hot, but now it's cooling.
The Glow Pt. 2 finds the Microphones picking up where they left off, although Pt. 2 proceeds at a more languid pace than its elder sibling, It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, and its textures are darker. Pt. 2 is more smoldering glow than shimmer, and there are fewer of those bright, pure pop moments that made It Was Hot such a standout. "The Gleam Pt. 2" features a pounding-heart drum procession with minor-key steel drums, whereas its predecessor, "The Gleam," was a grandiose jaunt, complete with a sparkly xylophone scale and Beach Boys-esque choral ending. Songs like the rollicking "You'll Be in the Air," and the perfectly bittersweet "My Roots Are Strong and Deep" illuminate the Microphones' essential, buzzworthy characteristic and their impatience with traditional pop-song structure. Across the album's 67 minutes, the songs are awash in long, repetitive segments that are neither experimental nor essential to the continuity of the album, which ultimately leaves The Glow Pt. 2 short of perfection. Steve Haruch
Sing Along with...
(Yep Roc Records)
Masked marauders strike again—this time with vocals!
Rock gimmicks typically have the life span of fruit flies (the popularity of KISS being the rule-affirming exception). So why are Los Straitjackets still shit-hot seven years and five albums down the line? It's not that their ever-present Mexican wrestling masks are still kitschy cool. And it's not that they've found some unique angle for updating '60s-vintage instrumental surf music. No, the fact that the Straits continue to rock so hard has nothing to do with novelty devices. They're just fantastic at their craft: blazing energy, emotive playing (especially on Danny Amis' and Eddie Angel's guitar solos), and tasteful production. This time out, they employ yet a new gambit by recruiting folks like Dave Alvin, Exene Cervenka, Horton Heat, and Tom Petty guitarist Mike Campbell to add vocals to a slate of guitar rock tunes. Paul Revere and the Raiders singer Mark Lindsay (on "Treat Her Right") and the Trashmen ("A Huevo") clock in with performances that are more than nostalgia. Nick Lowe ("Shake That Rat") takes his solo turn not at the mike but on bass guitar. Still, like the other tricks up their sleeves, this ploy works just fine because it takes a back seat to the Straitjackets' superb musicianship. Viva Los Straitjackets! (And all their gimmicks, too!) Chris Nelson