For a band boasting such a distinctive sonic signature and such an unorthodox approach to songwriting, for a band initially so daring and hard to categorize, over the course of the last two years Clinic has become strangely conservative. With its 2004 offering, Winchester Cathedral, the giddy adventure of its early EPs and of its manic debut, Internal Wrangler, has been all but replaced by a subtle, vaguely insidious air of moderation and conformity to formula (albeit the Clinic formula). It's as if the group spent its early years in a condition of perpetual freefall, while clutching for a ledge, any ledge, to hold onto -- only to eventually find it. That initial drama produced something great for the listener: thrills galore. Now, watching Clinic out in the relative safety of the ledge feels an adrenaline rush in recession. For the most part, Winchester Cathedral trades in familiar wares. It's the sound of Clinic reminiscing about the good old days of the fall.
That's not to say the new record is sorely lacking or even appreciably inferior to the band's previous work (including last year's terrific Walking With Thee). On its own, in fact, it holds up quite well. And if one were to start here, one would still find one's jaw dropping to the floor while toes tapped involuntarily.
And to be fair, Winchester Cathedral does represent something new for this Liverpool oddity -- namely, a stripping-away of the fleshy instrumental arrangements that characterized their previous work in an effort to get down to the bone and connective tissue. The skeletal framework leaves more room for Ade Blackburn's strangled vocals, although his typically crazed delivery (like a confession given through clenched teeth) is nearly unintelligible, even in the quietest moments.
Meanwhile, old friends return. Clarinet and melodica (the loveliest, creepiest organ you've ever heard) remain front and center as the carriers of melody while electric guitars throb and percussion plays it slinky and primitive. The caverns of icy cool reverb are unspoiled too. These deep dark spaces are the perfect compliment to Blackburn's lyrical subject matter, which seems transfixed on diseases of the mind and spirit.
So play it sinister, play it cool. But please, Clinic, I just can't stand it when you play it safe.