First-Stage Alert

It's a good time to be singer/songwriter Matthew Niblock. His band, the Clear, has just released its second CD, Living at the Movies, and as Niblock puts it, "labels are sniffing around." They recently played a sold-out show at the House of Blues in Hollywood and are gearing up for an East Coast tour this summer. Oh, and he just got married to bassist Miiko Watanabe, who splits her time between the Clear, the band New Lo and a few other gigs.

Success, of course, means more work, and as you nestle into the couch of an LA recording studio watching the band nitpick the nuances of what's ostensibly a straightforward rock tune, speaking in musical logarithms that may as well be particle physics, you realize that a hell of a lot of effort goes into making music look so effortless onstage.

The Clear started in 1995 as an ostensible duo between Niblock and guitarist Mark Smith, a Dana Point guitar teacher who spends part of each year playing classic rock for U.S. troops overseas.

"The first record we did," Smith says of 1997's Refrain, "there wasn't really a band. There were a lot of people on the record who are in the band now, but back then, it was really just Matthew and my strange little summer art project."

Despite Smith's modesty, Refrain is a captivating album, blending Niblock's muscular-but-eloquent vocals, Smith's intricate guitar workouts, and a wide range of influences—from contemporary folk to old, beaten-up blues (marked best by Steve Kruse's soulful harp work) and straight-ahead rock & roll.

Above all, though, two things separate them from the hordes of bland musicians who'll forever crawl the Sunset Strip. The first is that each of the Clear's three singers —Niblock, Kruse and Jennifer Hardaway—would be the envy of any band. They're a trio of warblers with an eerie instinct for harmony. The second is Niblock's songwriting; in many ways, Refrain was a poetic rumination on his first marriage and eventual divorce, a meditation on faith and his own inability to find it. In "The Airplane Song," he is biting and emotional, singing, "This is what she said to him/Said, 'I'd like to live inside your skin'/I said, 'Yeah, you and everybody else I've ever met'/What an arrogant boy." Later, in "Nazareth by Rail," he sings, "They've got the Jordan River in a jar/And I want some of that."

The words are flip and sarcastic, but while he's lashing out at the world, there's also the sense that Niblock is saving his worst bite for himself. It's a marvelous work, one that punctuates a complex artistic vision unusual in most nascent bands.

"I'm still very proud of Refrain," says Niblock. "That was exactly what we were trying to say. But what I found over time was that while we may have been communicating effectively, we weren't communicating it to that many people." He laughs. "Not because it's not good or because it doesn't sound good, but just because more people respond to the structure of a pop song with a lot of repetition in it than they do to a series of little vignettes, which is what we were doing."

For Niblock, the challenge now is to reconcile his sense of artistry with writing more accessible pop songs. A lot of this has been a natural progression; the band has moved away from a constantly rotating cast of between two and 10 members to a solid six, including new drummer Anthony Zimmitti.

"I had to let go of my fairly rigid idea that I couldn't do it," says Niblock, who had rebelled against writing straightforward pop songs for most of his career, even when he auditioned to replace Natalie Merchant in 10,000 Maniacs. "I had to get over the idea that it was intrinsically bad. The fact is it's not bad. It took some time and honing to figure out how to do it and say exactly what we wanted to say. Now I think we're finally getting it."

And as the practice session progresses, as the Clear kick into a killer love song called "The Smiths" (in which Niblock marvels how he could possibly be in love with anyone who's a fan of the whiny old Brit rockers he dislikes so immensely) and Kruse swallows an onion ring before coming in to hit his note on cue, it becomes obvious that they do indeed get it now.

The Clear play at Club Mesa, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-6634. Wed., 9 p.m. Free. 21+.

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