(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Recording review - The Clientele, Suburban Light (2000 / Reissue: 2014)

Dreamy surrealism shines through

Where many bands can take years to discover their voice, Alasdair MacLean and The Clientele seem to have effortlessly nailed that down from the beginning. Although their 2000 “debut”, Suburban Light was largely just a loose collection of previously released singles, it held together as a coherent statement of gently drifting introspection. This new reissue combines the original U.K. release with a second disc that contains the alternate songs from the U.S. version and a number of additional tunes. Bonus content is generally a treat, but when tracks are shoe-horned in, they can end up diluting the experience of the main album. But rather than defocusing their sound, this expanded set flows smoothly, with each song falling into place. The only bit of distraction comes at track 21 of 23, “Monday’s Rain (Portastadio Version),” which triggers a déjà vu moment, as it reprises the album version from back at the fifth track of the first disc.

In this case, though, the extra material makes this reissue particularly attractive because it includes some very well crafted songs. For example, “Driving South” begins with a ’70s easy listening vibe that invites a musing detachment. The chorus picks up energy even as it turns more melancholy, “Me and Mr. Jones / So, so speechless and alone.” Then they borrow the descending riff from the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” for the next lines to recover the earlier dreaminess and set up the next verse. Although the progression is fairly sophisticated, the band makes it feel loose and inviting. Later, “Tracy Had a Hard Day Sunday” effortlessly blends a casual jazz vamp with the band’s trademark mid-’60s psychedelic pop. The lyrics seem both mundane and profound, “People are papier mâché/ People and the games they play.” But even if MacLean slips into non-sequitur, it all fits because the music weaves a dream logic spell that’s irresistible.

Suburban Light takes all of The Clientele’s influences – especially the Beatles, but also the Byrds, Love and the Hollies – and filters them through a dreamy surrealism. They fall into a reverie of sun-dappled pop; they’re turned inward, but hopeful. At times, the thickly reverbed vocals and guitar jangle can seem a bit precious, but their sincerity is strong enough to overcome jaded ears. Even so, there’s an intriguing skew that keeps them from falling into predictability. In “Joseph Cornell”, they get esoteric with a cryptic line, “151 or 145 or twice times 123,” and it’s not clear what that or any of the other lyrics have to do with the surrealist artist of the title. The meaning may be obscure, but it still just sounds right. Then, too, relatively straightforward songs, like “Monday’s Rain”, can turn up evocative poetry like, “Is the lamplight curling from your fingers to your face/ Leaning out into the wind with fear?” Those creative sparks keep the music far from falling into a pastiche of their inspirations.

Over time, with better budgets and nicer recording equipment, The Clientele would polish their sound, but that sonic clarity never fundamentally changed their aesthetic. The band may be more or less defunct now (although they've announced a few appearances in honor of the reissue), but it’s a joy to sink into this extended bit of elevated pop that still feels as fresh as it did a decade and a half ago.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

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