Just about every musical band have their ur-song, a single composition from which most of the ideas in their later work can be deduced. For the Clean, father figures of the New Zealand independent scene centered on the Flying Nun label, it was " Oddity, " which they recorded in 1980, several months before their debut single, but left unreleased for several years. It’s a symmetrical, almost contentless koan — Ray Charles’s " What’d I Say " translated into the three-chord language of post-Velvets rock. " Well, you’re doing all right/Yeah you’re doing okay, " sings guitarist David Kilgour before speeding up the alternations: " It’s okay it’s all right it’s okay it’s all right oh yeah. " The chorus clarifies precisely nothing: " It’s an oddity, but it’s true, oh yeah. "
Nearly every track on the first disc from a new retrospective of the Clean’s Flying Nun days, Anthology (Merge), operates similarly, combining a firm grasp of verse/chorus/verse grammar with an unmistakable sonic idiolect: Kilgour’s rich guitar textures, his brother Hamish’s skeletal drumming, the decisive melodic bass of Robert Scott, all topped with unassuming vocals from the three of them. As " Oddity " suggests, the band’s best lyrics are their least meaningful; there’s a story line tucked into " Billy Two, " but the flickering acoustic strum and childlike chorus ( " Billy, ah Billy, ah Billy, ah-ha " ) are what make it stick.
After setting a musical and ethical example for a nation’s worth of inventive, non-careerist pop outfits, the Clean took half a decade off, with the three members scattering to different projects, including the Bats, Stephen, and the Mad Scene. The second disc of Anthology opens with seven songs from their return to duty, the taut Vehicle, which they recorded in three days after a handful of reunion shows in 1989. Their next burst of activity (1994’s Unknown Country and 1996’s Modern Rock) was sketchier: for every gem, there’s an indigestible nugget like " Ludwig, " with Hamish Kilgour affecting a Swiss Family Robinson accent over echo-laden percussion. Not the work of a band deeply concerned with the coherence of their legacy — of course that’s the point. Anthology doesn’t offer anything from 2001’s stronger Getaway (Merge), which is still in print.
Like the Clean, the Tall Dwarfs’ Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate, another of Flying Nun’s original finds, have stayed together by taking long vacations from each other. The Sky Above, the Mud Below (Carrot Top) is their first CD since 1998’s Fifty Flavors of Glue, though Knox has never stopped recording and touring on his own. A solid introduction to their 13-album body of work, the disc opens with " Meet the Beatle, " which deftly recounts Bathgate’s encounter with George Harrison while " having coffee with my Mum. " The Fab Four are a frequent reference point, from the " Strawberry Fields " mellotron of " Melancholy " to the Lennonesque roughness of both members’ voices; the spirits of Brian Wilson and Don Van Vliet hover nearby as well. The duo’s collisions between home-grown tape loops and emotionally revealing lyrics may seem lo-fi on the surface, but these recordings are as painstakingly constructed as any more conventional pop productions.
The last eight songs on The Sky Above are an EP within an album; credited to " International Tall Dwarfs, " they turn friends and fellow travelers into virtual collaborators via taped contributions. The results are all over the map. a vocal snippet from Half Japanese’s Jad Fair grounds the body-conscious " Wax " ( " My gal and me are liposucked/Our fat reamed out, our bellies tucked " ); countryman Graeme Downes of the Verlaines matches an atonal guitar line to Knox’s stream of verbiage on " Carsick. " Other participants include Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum and obscure home-taper Peter Broccoli, but the closing " Run-Off Groove " brings it all back home via an inchoate jam with the Clean. The track is less appealing than the mental picture it evokes: five musicians who have known one another for decades whacking away at slide guitars and tablas, probably amazed that they’re getting away with it.
There’s an ironic side to all this continued activity by the Flying Nunderground’s first wave. Label founder Roger Shepherd (now a wine exporter in England) passed on the reins in 1996, and the label’s subsequent signings haven’t had the impact of their predecessors. The one New Zealand band currently making a splash — the D4, from Auckland — play pressed-and-formed rock that pretends to no higher artistic purpose than to be " back. " Such music could make you imagine that the Tall Dwarfs and the Clean — to say nothing of such lesser-knowns as Bill Direen and Look Blue Go Purple — had never existed. But they did, and they’re not about to vanish anytime soon. As " Drawing to a Whole, " the Clean’s paean to their own resourcefulness, promised: " We’ll go around it/We’ll go under it/We’ll do something. "