Merge, 2009

New Zealand’s The Clean have been wading in the pool of obscurity for some time now, lauded by critics and music geeks (in 2007 they were invited by Yo La Tengo, some of the biggest music geeks around, to open for a Hannukah show), unknown to the other 99% of the industrialised world. Their legacy dates back to 1978, and the intervening years have seen it all, from hiatuses to side projects to compilation discs. Mister Pop finds this decades-old band not innovating, but regressing — way back into the ’60s.

The best thing I can say about Mister Pop is that it’s aptly titled. The Clean deliver seven straight pop songs and three woozy but straightforward instrumentals. Not punk, not rock ‘n roll but pop. And here’s the problem: this simple description of the album is the only one that puts it honestly in a truly positive light.

Opener “Loog” is promisingly strange, both in title and sound. It’s a misty instrumental of some length that features a crackling organ and ghostly oo’s and aah’s. But following after something so intriguing, track two, “Are You Really on Drugs?”, seems even more headache-inducingly mundane. The song is uselessly Beatlesque, all aesthetic and no substance. They’ve got the ’60s pop sound down, but the guitars are boring, the hook numbingly repetitive. And, most problematically, none of it is catchy.

The Clean desperately need an immediate recovery. But “In the Dreamlife You Need a Rubber Soul” is a tale of suburban monotony as tiresome as its subject, while “Back in the Day” bounces cheerfully but without passion, like a sub par Pavement b-side (ironic, given that Stephen Malkmus cites The Clean as a major influence). Mister Pop’s only redeeming moments — the bright and enjoyable instrumental “Simple Fix” and the vocoder-submerged, jammy romp of “Tensile” — are refreshing, but constitute too little too late. These good moments indicate that Mister Pop is restricted by its poppiness. On this record, quality comes from experimentation and defiance of expectation. The good songs go somewhere, and somewhere different. The Clean have long been known for their idiosyncracy. Mister Pop shows them mostly without it. When you take away those tiny little things, like the live crunch and paper-thin vocal delivery on Clean classic “Anything Could Happen”, that show the band’s enthusiasm for its own music, what remains is painfully vanilla.

Mister Pop doesn’t tarnish The Clean’s reputation, but it’s no testament to their greatness, either. As any hipster will advise you, stick to the old stuff, And if it’s a ’60s pop throwback you seek, I hear Capitol’s just reissued some records by a couple old British guys.