Clinic @ The Troubadour, 5.20.08 / by laurel

Here's a little story about misconceptions. 

While traveling in Hawaii with my family last year, my dad announced one evening that we would be eating dinner at a cafe in Maui. Sure, sure, sounds good. He paused for effect before adding that it was the cafe at the Tommy Bahama store.

Tommy Bahama?

For those of you unfamiliar with the pastel wares hawked at the 'Hama, imagine cool breezes, fluttering silk...and pleated khaki trousers. It's not just Dadwear, it's luau Dadwear. It's Dad with a couple of mai tais and 9-holes at the club.  And It has a cafe. I whined and protested the grand injustice of eating dinner at an establishment that honestly and enthusiastically sells THIS shirt for $150, to no avail. We were going, and we would likely be waited on by men in linen. 

But here's the thing. And by posting this in a public forum, I am officially going on record as saying: The Tommy Bahama outdoor cafe in Maui, Hawaii, is fantastic. I mean it. Sincerely and honestly fantastic. The whiskey sour was the best whiskey sour I've ever had, and if lobster bisque has ever nearly brought you to tears with its creamy goodness, then you know. You KNOW what I'm talking about.

Which brings me to Clinic, the Liverpool band who played at the Troubadour last night. 

I suppose it's my own naivete and my own fault, but I've never really seen any pictures of the band Clinic, so I had no idea what to expect visually. I can tell you that what I imagined (tall skinny lads in skinnier jeans and messy hair) is not at all what came walking out on stage last night. What came out on stage was, in fact, Tommy Bahama and the Sunshine Gang, as all four band members ambled out in fully patterned Hawaiian shirts, crew cuts, and...whaaa? Medical masks. Ok. I guess it's part of their schtick, but seriously...Hawaiian shirts?

But unlike my experience at the Tommy Bahama restaurant, I wasn't judging Clinic based on appearances alone, because I am familiar with their music and fully expected them to deliver. And they did. But I never fully got over the visual incongruence. 

Opener "Memories" chugged right out of the station, laying a framework of thudding rhythms only to evaporate around Ade Blackburn's indifferent murmur and Beach Boys-esque organ. Blackburn announced the titles of each song a-matter-of-factly before plugging away with the familiar tempo (without his methodical harbingers, it would have likely been difficult to tell when the rest of the band transitioned from one song to the next).

The production was unfussy and the gents' stage presence (or spooky lack thereof) was kookily indifferent; you could swap one salt-and-pepper crew cut, floral silk shirt, or candy-colored guitar for the other and be none the wiser. It's exactly this groove-minded self-consciousness that makes Clinic such an enigmatic outfit. Pick a song in Clinic's oeuvre. Any song. Do you like that song? Well, there's a pret-ty good chance you'll like the rest of the songs as well. The truth is, there isn't much in their musical catalogue that hints at the bands' expected trajectory, as most of what they do (and they do it so well) sounds exactly like what they've done, and, one would assume, like what they will do in the future, but it hardly matters because what they do is beautifully austere garage rock, detached and, yes, clinical. It's a galloping, self-aware, controlled freak-out, and it's just as good in a live venue as it is constrained to an album recording. 

Despite their lazy luau-cum-SARS prevention attire, Clinic radiated the kind of reigned-in energy that vibrated just below the surface, cutting the tension in Blackburn's reptilian whine--but just barely. The crowd, at times, would respond spastically with their limbs attached to invisible strings, as though the cool insouciance of the Liverpool lads was simply too much to handle. 

The band played plenty of songs from their latest release, Do It!, as well as a handful of older tunes, including a few from my personal favorite album, Walking With Thee. Even their entrances and exits from the stage hummed right along, with two encores to keep the crowd engaged, but never fully committed to connecting with anyone in the room. 

There was something so unusually jarring about a handful of aging hibiscus-printed rockers crooning behind medical masks, and it reminded me of my linen-clad waiter at Tommy Bahama and the delicious lobster bisque: it wasn't what I'd expected, but I loved it, nonetheless.