Six albums and just more than ten years in, Clinic have come a long way from the glory days of their 2000 debut “Internal Wrangler”. That and 2002’s “Walking With Thee” established the medical scrubs-wearing band as heavily indebted to 60s and 70s psychedelia, though their modern twist was often far more experimental and anti-pop. Most people probably discovered the band through one of those two records, which created what qualified as “buzz” in an era when the mp3 was just getting legs as a distribution method for music. Without the benefit of a million music blogs, the band truly earned their stripes the old fashioned way, only to slowly lose them with a string of records that failed to expand much on their “groovy” initial splash. There have been subtle changes over the course of records like “Winchester Cathedral”, “Visitations” and “Do It!”, but with the advent of other sharply psych-pop leaning groups such as Animal Collective, Clinic has fallen largely by the wayside. Despite this, there’s no other group making music today that quite captures what Clinic have going for them, and they prove it again sufficiently on their latest release “Bubblegum”.
Kicking off with the mid-tempo “I’m Aware”, right away things sound a bit different from your standard Clinic fare. There’s a briskly strummed acoustic guitar that leads into strings and a mellow but overtly firm vocals from Ade Blackburn. The sound has an almost Troggs vibe to it, and the surprisingly heartfelt lyrics about the greatness of love differ from the vaguer, darker things the band has explored previously. Also interesting is the title track, which makes ample use of wah-wah guitars to the point where it comes off like the soundtrack to a lost blaxploitation film from the 70s. That’s an arena the band hasn’t explored much, if at all, and it’s just too bad they don’t try more of it. Then again, excessive use of wah-wah guitars can get a little cliched after awhile. For fans of what might best be described as “classic Clinic”, i.e. the type of songs they’ve done a lot of before, take comfort in a track like “Lion Tamer”, which is heavy on the guitars and distortion. The track’s brisk pace and acid rock stylings act as something of a breath of fresh air on the surprising amount of ballad-esque tracks that surround it on either side. “Milk & Honey” is another one that looks back to the band’s earlier days, and Blackburn gets all mumbley and mushmouthed as he’s done so many times before. But in the spirit of mixing things up, a song like “Radiostory” comes along, which pairs a very bass and organ-heavy instrumental with a spoken word tale. For a brief moment it resembles something The Clientele would do (have done…see “Losing Haringey”), but the backing music isn’t quite as gorgeous though the story is relatively meaningful. What is pretty beautiful is “Forever (Demis Blues)”, which actually incorporates a banjo as one of the main instruments next to the percussion that keeps things at the pace of a steady shuffle. Additionally pleasant-sounding is the instrumental track “Una Astronauta En Cielo”, which mixes acoustic guitars, drum machines and just a little bit of keyboards. This all comes before what winds up being one of Clinic’s best songs to date in the album-closing “Orangutan”. The wah-wah guitars make a return, but there’s plenty of heavy electrics and a psychedelic stomp that’s probably the grooviest and most solid thing the band can offer.
Despite what feels like more than a handful of sonic experiments, virtually everything on “Bubblegum” sounds exactly like Clinic. That’s not to suggest a lack of diversity in the band’s approach, but more that there’s so many ways you can skin a cat. Whether it’s Ade Blackburn’s often overly calm vocal performance or just the simple fact that much of what Clinic does carries with it the tones of 60s and 70s psychedelia, something is giving this record inescapable roots. Given that the band does tend to have a sound all their own (ostensibly speaking), nobody can fault them for staying inside the same bubble for six records. Were they to shove out an 80s synth pop or a 90s grunge album, it’d more than likely be regarded as a huge mistake and a blemish on their careers. As it stands, much of their catalogue ranges from great to pretty good, with only perhaps one small misstep. “Bubblegum” probably ranks somewhere towards the middle of their discography when arranged according to overall quality. There’s a bunch of good songs here, enough challenging material to satisfy long-time fans, and it also happens to be the most beautiful thing they’ve ever done. It may not be the revitalizing shot Clinic needs to get back on the “buzz band” trail, but for those that know and love the band, it delivers in the exact way needed to ensure you keep a close eye on them until next time.