There's a fine line between expression within a style of music and just playing it by number, and this problem is compounded when a band or artist crafts an especially distinctive sound. Just how long does it take until they cross that line? In Clinic's case, it took a slew of fascinating singles and three albums of diminishing returns before their mix of garage, punk, dub, and pop started to sound stale. In all fairness, the band's limitations were beginning to show on Walking With Thee, but the fact that Winchester Cathedral comes two and a half years after that album -- and was described initially as "a marked shift from Walking With Thee's darker character" -- makes it all the more disappointing that this is, overall, the least inspired work of Clinic's career to date. Winchester Cathedral isn't a verbatim rehashing of their previous work (although it is uncomfortably easy to graft the melody of Walking With Thee's "Come Into Our Room" onto "Thank You [For Living]"): it's neither the wonderfully cavernous clatter of their early singles and Internal Wrangler, nor the frosty detachment of their previous album. Winchester Cathedral's most gnawing problem isn't that the band fails to recapture past glories, it's that Clinic seem to have lost the spark that would keep their current work interesting. At several points during the album, it feels like the band has forgotten how much dark, mischievous fun it used to be, and that makes it hard for listeners to remember as well. On songs like "Circle of Fifths" and "W.D.Y.Y.B.," the rhythms churn, evil surf guitars abound, and Ade Blackburn once again sounds cryptically pissed off, but this time around, it's just not intriguing enough to unravel what he's going on about. The dull, grating instrumental "Vertical Takeoff in Egypt" wouldn't even have been a B-side during the band's peak. In many ways, Clinic aren't really much of an album-format band. As good as Internal Wrangler was, the group excelled at singles, which allowed them to include their noisy, experimental side as well as their more full-fledged songs in short bursts that left the listener wanting more. As they've tried to adapt their sound to the album format, they've become more subtle, and most of Winchester Cathedral's pleasures are found in its subtleties. Rattling percussion and hints of Middle Eastern and klezmer music snake their way through songs like "August." "Anne" boasts a sarabande-like intro, and "The Magician"'s droning clarinets almost save it from being a good but typical Clinic song. And fortunately, the band's skill with a ballad hasn't deserted them: "Home" suggests "Goodnight Georgie" recast as the theme to a beatnik spaghetti Western. "Falstaff," meanwhile, is one of the most striking songs of Clinic's career: blending oddly soulful, nearly Smokey Robinson-like verses with bittersweet, very British choruses, it's eerie, affecting, strangely sensual -- and also makes the rest of Winchester Cathedral all the more frustrating as it offers proof that Clinic are indeed still capable of pushing their sound in different yet familiar directions. It's a cliché to say that a band was better back in the day, but albums like this are the reason this cliché exists. If it was pared down to its best tracks, Winchester Cathedral would make a solid EP. As it stands, it's far from bad, but it's a little boring, which is worse than bad from a band that has sounded so unique in the past.
© Heather Phares /TiVo