"Evolve or die" is a handy edict for Darwinists and engineers, but for rock groups it can be a hazardous gambit. It's an approach that smacks of petulance and impatience, a flawed idea that playing to one's own formula equals laziness—or will be misinterpreted as "shtick," which is why the Ramones got away with it. And when the formula in question is Clinic's odd, singular blend of sound—something so instantly identifiable as the work of exactly one band and one band alone, while still being simultaneously evocative of 18-odd disparate reference points (Augustus Pablo's melodica as interpreted by Ennio Morricone, the Velvet Underground with a yen for Mingus, Nile Rodgers as the original guitarist for Them)—it kind of begs the question: What can you add to it?
Winchester Cathedral (Domino) is the third consecutive Clinic record that sounds aesthetically different than its discographi- cal cohorts, even if the shifts are subtle. The Liverpool quartet did toy with their sound significantly two years ago—at least significantly enough to twerk a few people off. 2002's Walking With Thee was decried as, woe is us, "polished" and "slick" and "danceable" and "pop" and "in possession of exactly zero weird-ass minute-long half-songs"—in other words, not enough like 2000's dynamite Internal Wrangler, their debut, not counting 2000's self-titled singles compilation.
Which is somewhat understandable, considering Wrangler is one of the most bonkers-ass garage-rock albums of the decade and the creepiest couple-chord, U.K., abandoned-tunnel dread soundtrack since Magazine's heyday all in one. So it was probably a bit of a shock to switch from that album's switchblades-and-mop-tops underground skulk to the pristine, wintry electric pianos and sun-warmed disco bass of Thee. By the time initial reports of Winchester's direction surfaced—back to the caves, back to the murk—brows were wiped and expectations were raised excessively: Promises abounded of tracks that sounded like Faust and Madonna and the Impressions, a tone described in early promo press as "an overall deranged party feel . . . broken up by several mellow Bread freak-outs." Threats were laid out that the New Rock Revolution would be exposed for the sham it was. Children were being hidden all across Pitchfork nation. Tweekers, trippers, juicers, and stoners alike were stocking up in anticipation. Record nerds (ahem) could barely keep their shirts on. Finally, Clinic were poised to cross the brink into complete acid-pop mayhem!
Um. (Cough.) Anyway, that didn't happen. Instead, Winchester Cathedral seamlessly straddles Wrangler and Thee; it sounds like it should have been released between the two instead of after. The first thing to hit is the familiarity of the band's rhythmic devices—guitars played like percussion instruments, throat-clenching drone-bass, drums hammered like that claw-hand guy from the Barbarians imitating Underworld's beats. The second is the manner in which they've been streamlined, instrumental interplay mastered in a way that not enough indie-rock bands are willing to strive for. It'd be easy to dismiss "The Magician" as distressingly, derivatively reminiscent of earlier track "Welcome" at first shrug, but it charges harder and weaves quicker, galloping forward with a thunderous plod where every instrument—rhythm section, clarinet, xylophone, lead singer Ade Blackburn's forlorn croon—slaloms immaculately around the others. It's as intricate and disconcerting as a chain-saw-juggling act.
This tautness keeps an air of sustained urgency in what would otherwise be rote genre exercises, such as the Buzzcocked rumblings of "W.D.Y.Y.B."—essentially Wrangler's "Hippy Death Suite" refashioned into chain-fight punk-pop—and the melancholy strumming waltz of "Home" (Thee's "Goodnight Georgie" minus trumpet plus whispered kiddie-style pt-choo laser-gun sounds), the end result being less self- derivative and more self-evocative. And it invigorates their other forays into less-trod ground even further: "Vertical Takeoff in Egypt" turns the rockabilly sleaze strut hinted at in Wrangler's slight "2nd Foot Stomp" into an increasingly frantic striptease where each discarded garment reveals scars and serpent scales. "August" is dizzy klezmer oompah for swingin' shtetl gangsters, while "Falstaff" is the dawn-break moment where the Penguins of "Earth Angel" fame share a smoke with Dave Brubeck and watch the Concorde take off.
As usual, tone trumps lyrics: Blackburn's purr-box incoherencies sound like he's singing through the corpse of a vacuum cleaner, but it's a versatile argle-bargle—manic one moment, depressive the next, surprisingly unfrustrated. As unquotable singers go, he's pretty damn fun to listen to. Granted, I can think of a couple ideas that might've made Winchester Cathedral a knockout breakthrough instead of a decentish follow-up, but most of them involve DFA remixes or an Eddie Harris electric saxophone or a conceptual narrative about giant flaming hell-bats. (This is why it is the critic's MO to lament miscues rather than suggest improvements.) It's a transitional album—just one that's suspiciously out of sequence.
Clinic play the Showbox with Sons and Daughters and Autolux at 8 p.m. Tues., Oct. 26. $13 adv./$15.