Sometimes getting turned on to a new band is like touching down in an unfamiliar city by accident: someplace you'd never intended to visit, someplace you'd never thought much about, perhaps even someplace you're mildly predisposed to dislike, through one of those strange quirks of prejudice. But as soon as you've gotten your bearings and the lay of the land, everything suddenly clicks, and you wonder how the place had eluded you for so long. You're hooked.
Turning on to The Clean was a little like that for me. By no means a new band, The Clean formed in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1978. For two decades they've remained one of the country's key bands (one of their singles was the second release for the seminal Flying Nun label, in fact). For no good reason, I've never delved into New Zealand rock the closest I ever got was a rockin'-but-cozy 1995 Chris Knox show in Providence, where Knox stepped out into the crowd and planted a chaste kiss on my lips in mid-song (which, come to think of it, is actually pretty close).
So I can't say much about how Getaway stacks up against The Clean's many years of recordings, but putting it on for the first time immediately brought me back to the days when Sonic Youth's Sister lived in constant rotation on my turntable. Getaway shares the same open-ended chords, the same echo-laden production (with the exception of the dry-as-a-bone vocals), but most of all the same sense of sunny-day melancholy: on the opening "Stars," the simple, two-chord progression is split open by the nails of a major seventh (my favorite interval ever almost asymptotally close to resolution, it is the exact musical translation of yearning), and the whole song hangs achingly in that fractured space. Even the utterly banal lyrics ("There's sun shining all of the time") seem to carry some kind of sweet, secret hurt, as vocalist David Kilgour draws out the refrain, "Time... time... time..." Yeah, lonely is an eyesore, and lonely can be sweet, and The Clean's addition to the tradition is to capture loneliness' temporal angle, the when-will-it-end quality of being so far inside your own hurt that time itself seems to stop ("Time... time... time..."). And all the while, there's that gorgeous chord, like a salve.
"Jala," riddled with harmonics and ringing guitars, sounds even more like vintage Sonic Youth. Kilgour's voice even approximates Thurston Moore's sullen tenor, but I hear it less as imitation than homage. With "Crazy," though, the disc moves away from Sonic Youth's parched terrain and toward greener fields of rootsy, Velvet Underground-styled Americana. It's not far from the sound that Yo La Tengo have made their own, especially in their more contemplative, less psychedelic moments and so it's no surprise to find Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan guesting on the ambient "Alpine Madness" and bluesily meandering "Circle Canyon" a dead ringer for a Yo La song if ever there was one.
"E Motel" is another standout, with ringing acoustic guitars (do I hear a mandolin in there?) and a rough-throated lyricism; it reminds me a little of the Faces' "Ooh La La," which closes out the Rushmore soundtrack beyond the obvious sonic parallels, there's the same kind of what-can-you-do melancholy, the same guilty peek over the shoulder, the same happy-sad abandon. For a country I never expected to visit, it turns out to be remarkably familiar and welcome territory.