Nonsense and sensibility

The stripped sounds, dry wit and humor of Liverpool's Clinic

A gargantuan tit spurting milk chases Woody Allen across a plain. A black knight, arms lopped off and the stumps spurting blood, hops on one remaining leg indignantly, resolutely. These are iconic film images, but not the kind of visuals any fan of Liverpool-based Clinic would associate with the medical scrub-clad quartet. But such absurdity and dry wit — paired with an intrinsically British cynicism — informs the off-kilter melodic jangle of Clinic. Often considered by many to be sinister, the truth is that Clinic just wants to provide an art-rock dance party, of a sort.

"It's music you can dance to, pop music in a warped way, but it has more depth, so in that sense it is individualistic," says Clinic singer/guitarist/ melodica player Ade Blackburn by trans-atlantic conference call. "When we see people react at our shows, it's not your standard dancing. It's people not caring, throwing themselves around, experiencing a com-plete release."

With looping, reverb-saturated guitars, ominously wailing, eerily garbled vocals and the plod of foreboding drums, the music on Clinic's third full-length album, Winchester Cathedral, may seem like the soundtrack to a beach party at a seaside asylum.

"So much pop music is overproduced till it's squeaky clean, so when you have something with more personality, it seems 'dark' by association, but that's what I would just consider more genuine," says Blackburn. "But I believe a large percentage of the population of the Earth is suffering from mental illness manifested in a myriad of ways, so in our small way, we identify and bring sunshine. After all, if you take everyday experience, to me it seems to be a mixture of elation with a downside as well, and those are the moods we try to bring in the music — the jump and jitter that's as quick as the everyday experience."

Clinic's music is built from small shards of melody and rhythm cobbled together unhurriedly rather than slogged out in terse studio sessions. That is surprising considering the taut nature of many of the concise songs. Everyone in the band — Blackburn, bassist Brian Campbell, guitarist/clarinetist/keyboardist Hartley and percussionist Carl Turney — can play everyone else's instruments, so the process is quite democratic, with no fixed roles.

The imagery associated with Winchester Cathedral is not meant to conjure cavernous grandeur, but rather that intrinsic British quality to Clinic. There's no delving into post-MC5/Stooges American-influenced garage rock. Songs are prickly but paced, condensed missives, occasionally verging on reeling but not prone to abandonment. Mid-tempo '60s-influenced pop codas circle like poltergeists at play. Vibrato-caked harmonies bob like half-charmed snakes. Twang-peppered melodrama takes place in spaghetti Western vignettes, with clarinets sweeping across the cliffs of Dover.

Metronomic rhythm is caressed then molested by jittery sneering instrument- ation, anchored by the drone of the band's trademark Philips Philicorda (a boxy, wooden keyboard marketed for home spirituals, but great to overdrive). If Clinic were a noodle pot, it would be hot curry — the kind that slowly creeps then quickly catches up on you as the sweat beads percolate across your brow like gremlins off a mogwai's back.

"We go for something that throws people into odd tangents," says Blackburn. "We'd prefer to follow the Monty Python plan for music, which has a hint of sadness, a dash of absurdity, and allows you to laugh at severe problems."