Wheeltappers and Shunters

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Clinic have always had one dial of their time machine pointed towards the past and one towards the future. On Wheeltappers and Shunters, they return from an unprecedented seven-year hiatus to bring these impulses together in ways that are surprisingly relevant to the time of the album's release. Taking inspiration from cultural artifacts like The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club -- a variety show about a gentlemen's social club that aired on ITV in the '70s -- Clinic use their unparalleled skills at reimagining vintage sounds to skewer the regressive politics of the late 2010s. These rickety, hallucinatory songs serve as reminders that the past was far from perfect, but they're also a lot of fun. Of course, Clinic's version of fun has more than a little danger mixed in, and Wheeltappers is full of seemingly upbeat songs laced with ominous undercurrents. The album's first few tracks are as direct as this notoriously cryptic band can be: "Laughing Cavalier" begins with a ringing bell straight from The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club before transporting listeners into a seedy '70s funfair with an extra dose of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's menacing whimsy. On "Complex," Clinic conjures up an imaginary past of "the good old days/the good old ways" with spiraling autoharps and clarinets that lurk in its shadows. The band juggles the album's sounds and themes most impressively on "Rubber Bullets." From its title to its smirking keyboard and bass line, it hints that its mischief isn't exactly harmless as Ade Blackburn's lyrics shift from meaningless promises ("the best is yet to come") to authoritarian statements ("keep in line"). Later on, Wheeltappers and Shunters showcases Clinic's mastery of illusions. "New Equations at the Copacabana," a haunted ballad arranged for harp, theremin, and typewriter, is deeply strange even by their standards; on the slinky "Congratulations" and dub-informed "Mirage," they exploit their ironically seductive side for all it's worth. At just 30 minutes long, Wheeltappers' concentrated eccentricity feels like an equal and opposite reaction to the expansive mantras of Free Reign (and upholds Clinic's tradition of approaching their music from a notably different angle than their previous album), especially since the past the band revisits includes their own. The garage rock/exotica fusion of "Rejoice!" recalls Do It!, while "Be Yourself/Year of the Sadist" is the kind of mournful oddity at which they've always excelled. For all its thematic focus and political commentary, Wheeltappers and Shunters is quintessentially Clinic; at once pointed and oblique, its bad trips and cheap thrills are a subversive rebuke to a sanitized notion of the past, present, or future.

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