Sunday, March 18, 2007

Step Into the Light

The Clientele, God
Save the Clientele,
Merge [5/8/07]

The Violet Hour (2003) was my first introduction to London’s Clientele. I was instantly smitten. Next I picked up the Suburban Light collection (2001), but took a pass on Strange Geometry (2005). They were starting to sound like a traditional pop band. Before that, the trio, now a quartet with the addition of the lovely Mel Draisey, had been vaguer, hazier—jazzier. There was something effervescent, yet mysterious about their sound. Like another instrument, songwriter/guitarist Alasdair MacLean’s vocals were mixed into the music, an effect I've always found appealing. It brings to mind Spirit of Eden Talk Talk or one of
the early Creation bands—Felt or Biff Bang Pow, perhaps.

But on their sophomore outing, MacLean had moved closer to the forefront. Not that I don't enjoy his breezy utterings, but I liked it better when I could only make out snatches of lyrics. It's like eavesdropping on an intriguing conversation. Now I can hear words more distinctly. This works fine for folk-oriented pop, but
with dream-pop bands—Lush, Galaxie 500, etc.—I prefer more translucent vocals. What makes them so "dreamy" isn't just the pleasant tone, but the fact that, as if in a dream, everything
doesn't make sense. I don't want everything to make sense.

That said, the whispering on “The Dance of the Hours” almost seems like a preemptive response to my concerns. In this
case, the music is louder than the vocals, and the vocals are indistinguishable. I haven’t decided whether or not it’s my favorite song on the album, but it does prove that the band realizes exquisite musicianship is one of their biggest strengths.

Like their two previous records, God Save the Clientele is perfectly charming. There’s nothing obviously “wrong” with it (although I feel the pedal steel is overused throughout). A less cynical observer would say the foursome is simply growing and maturing, and that along with greater confidence comes the desire to make themselves heard more clearly. I’m sure that’s true, actually, and it’s not as if they’ve become loud or bombastic. The Clientele remain as subtle and tasteful as ever, but the more they reveal, the less interesting they become. I miss the mystery.

Mostly, I wish this were the first Clientele record I had ever heard. If so, I might love it. Whenever I listen to a new album—or watch a new movie—I try to be as objective as possible. I realize my conclusions are bound to be subjective, but at least I try to remove all preconceptions from my mind before pressing play. In this case, my bias is that I know what the first Clientele album sounds like, and I love it. And I like this recording just fine, but in comparison, it's hard to love.

In the end, you can pretend the past doesn't exist, and attempt evaluate a work of art—of commerce—as if it sprang from thin air, but the attachment to original impressions is often too strong to deny. And I'm not sure it should be—denied, that is. As for God Save the Clientele, I can heartily recommend it to dream-pop adherents near and wide. I just can't recommend it to myself.

Endote: I predict critics will proclaim this the best Clientele record yet, precisely because of the increased clarity. As McLean states, "The ghosts, half-light and uncertainties remain, but I sense a newfound optimism in the music. Perhaps born of new love? Definitely a new era for the Clientele." The more I listen, the more it grows on me. A year from now, I may well join the chorus.
But I'm not there yet... The band plays Seattle's Crocodile Café
on 5/28/07. Click here to hear them live on KEXP (11/26/05)
and here to stream songs from their Merge recordings. Images from the official Clientele website and their MySpace Page.


John Moulder said...

I'm sorry to read that the album didn't hit you right away. Yours is the first bit of feedback i've read about God Save... thus far. How have you heard it already? I'm desperate to hear the new songs! And what about the "disco song"? Is it much of a departure?

kathy fennessy said...

Thanks for your comment. I hope my review didn't scare you away. You may love this record--I may learn to love it. It's quite good; I just don't like it as much as their first two releases, but I do think the general consensus will be positive. I got the CD as I appear to be on the Merge mailing list (for select CDs, at any rate). Also, I don't recall a disco song, so it must not have bothered me.

John Moulder said...

Oh no you didnt scare me away at all. I'm far too obsessed to be put off by anything at all really. heh. I think the band was describing one particular song as a "disco" song due to the fact that it was far more upbeat than anything they'd done before. Not so much in reference to there literally being a disco sounding song. Though i know the singer is very fond of the Bee Gees, I can't imagine that influence suiting them all too well. Does your copy show the album cover by chance? im curious to see what it's going to look like.

kathy fennessy said...

The advance arrived without any art, but the press release features a cool illustration. I hope it makes the cover. It's a drawing and/or painting of an owl and a rabbit hidden among the flowers. The sky is dark and there's a full moon shining up above. It's a black and white reproduction, so that's all I can tell you, but it fits the band's "nocturnal" vibe.

John Moulder said...

Ooh very nice, i've seen that! Alasdair, the singer, posted a full color picture of that in his blog.

it's the second one down, if my assumption is correct. That would make for a great cover. The word "cover" is in the picture URL.
We might be in luck...