I don’t know what it is. Being from a beach town (Wilmington, NC), maybe it’s in their blood. Maybe they absorb the salt from the air, osmotically. But when I hear FreeClinic, I instantly think waves and sun and sand. I, too, have saltwater in my veins, so I have a nose for these things. Oh, maybe it’s also the “ooohs” and “aaahs” that bubble up from underneath Diggin’ My Own Grave and Hide Around, two cuts from their new release, Wait It Out. Or the beautiful reverb, as on Young. Or that singer Benjamin Rose outright sings “Here comes the summer, Darlin’” on Better.
But the WAY he sings it, the WAY it’s played, you feel it. It becomes summer right in your ears, all around you, in your personal space. Regardless of that late-season cold snap, or that it’s still not quite warm enough for a day out the waves in a kayak. But you want it to be. Wait It Out makes you really want it to be. But summer’s coming soon enough, and with this album, no worries… they’ve already got yer soundtrack picked out for you.
Free Clinic definitely has that beachy/retro feel, albeit mixed with a raggedy, slightly garage-y edge. But unlike many others worshipping at the altar of Brian Wilson, they don’t sound derivative. Probably because they practice as much or more in the churches of the Descendents and the Strokes (but hey, I thought the Descendents made some damn fine beach tuneage!).
But back to derivation… or lack thereof. Free Clinic just has a real way with a hook, a melody. Generally, they’re making pop music that’s pretty simple – nothing revolutionary. Not to downplay that. It’s mu’fuggin’ CATCHY simple pop music. You have to walk a mighty fine line to create melodies that are austere and unfussy, yet don’t sound like something you’ve already heard. There are at least 3 or 4 genuine pop gems on this album. I mean songs that you could see getting picked up and played anywhere -- in that movie, on that commercial – and enjoyed everywhere, by everyone.
Rose’s voice is a highlight. He’ll switch from a punk-room wail to a bedroom warble, or back, at the right time. Even when he's revving it up, there’s a sadness about it. Maybe that’s where the bittersweetness in the band’s overall sound comes from. This music is drenched in a wonderful heartsickness. As poppy as it sounds, it’s also a little wounded.
Part of that is the lyrics of lovesickness and yearning running throughout. “I’ll be right there if you want me to”, “With you is always better / just want you to remain”. But I’m not much of a lyrics guy, and I’m a decade or two and a divorce past my ability to wallow in lovesickness. Part of it is maybe also the descending melodies and off-kilter keys. Even when happy sounding, these songs have a wonderful sting. And it’s great that you can feel that in music.
It starts with the upbeat All Over, which definitely has that sting. It soars, reveling in a flood of feelings, before crashing in desperation with “please tell me when it’s all over.” After a couple of more down-tempo charmers, one of the afore-mentioned pop gems, Better, grabs you. It’s a really great song. Simple strumming and dejected-but-hopeful opening lines climb to a more optimistic tone, backed by chiming double guitars. And for the life of me, Rose sounds like a young Billie Joe Armstrong here (not usually, though).
Off My Rocker and No More Problems are two more carat-laden cuts. They bounce all over the place (as you probably will when you listen). Both of those were on earlier demo releases by the band. I have to admit I still like the demo versions of these two songs better (more atmospheric backing vocals and a “softer” feel). But this album is great on its own merits. If the worst thing you can say about a band is you like their demos better, they’re doing pretty well. On these versions, I hear more layered guitar melodies. That’s where their sound appears headed for now… especially live, with the recent addition of a second guitarist. Tight, energy-laden rhythms from drummer Wesley Hewett and bassist Morgan Roberts keep pushing those geetars. On the whole, I’d say Wait It Out is a little more stripped down and cleaner sounding than the band’s earlier releases.
I just got feelz for this album. Deep feelz. I don’t know about you, but my summer has begun.
P.S.: As for those demo versions, I highly recommend getting any of the MixGrotto compilations on the MixGrotto Bandcamp page (the band had a full B-side Demos album up on their page, but it’s unfortunately no longer there). MixGrotto, also out of Wilmington, makes sort of millenial “mixtapes” with an NC bent; they’ve put out 18(!) so far. The last couple have those two Free Clinic demos, as well as tunes from other great coastal NC bands such as Astro Cowboy and Zack Mexico, and piedmont bands T0W3RS, Less Western, Echo Courts, Silent Lunch, Daddy Issues… etc. etc. If you want a good sampler of current NC music, MixGrotto is a great place to start.