Someone at Merge must have had a screw loose to okay the release of a sprawling retrospective spotlighting an obscure New Zealand act that means less than nothing to most Americanos. But please leave that screw untightened, because Anthology is capable of making the average listener nostalgic for a group he's never heard of.
Were it not for the Clean, which opens for Yo La Tengo at the Gothic Theatre on June 11, stateside rockers who somehow missed Split Enz might be under the illusion that New Zealand didn't exist until Peter Jackson needed sets for Lord of the Rings. The combo, which originally featured brothers Hamish and David Kilgour (on drums and guitar, respectively) and guitarist Peter Gutteridge, formed in 1978 and made its recorded debut three years later when fan Roger Shepherd created a label, Flying Nun Records, solely to issue "Tally Ho!," an engagingly cheap-sounding slab of roller-rink punk that kicks off Anthology. Flying Nun went on to serve as the gateway to the rest of the world for just about every worthy New Zealand rock outfit that followed, including the Chills, the Verlaines, the Tall Dwarfs and Straitjacket Fits.
Of course, history, no matter how interesting in theory, doesn't guarantee listening pleasure; if it did, the late author Stephen Ambrose would have put down his pen and become the lead singer for the Band of Brothers. Fortunately, the Kilgours and their chosen collaborators consistently delivered on disc. Early numbers like the engagingly primitive "Platypus" make the most of the four tracks on which they're built, while subsequent offerings such as the chiming, melancholic "End of My Dream" and the swirling, droney, teasingly brief "Big Cat" exhibit a growing sophistication that stops well short of slickness. Throughout their on-again, off-again career, the Clean always understood the importance of keeping things dirty.
With 45 songs crammed onto two CDs, Anthology provides more Clean per square inch than any other collection, and that turns out to be a good thing. Maybe that nut at Merge isn't so screwy after all.