The Clientele

Music Reviews
The Clientele

Here’s a primer the average Yank might find useful in identifying the London-based dream-pop quartet The Clientele as unmistakably and unabashedly twee:

1) Count the number of times during the set that frontman Alasdair MacLean applies the word “fetching” to various aspects of the band’s physical appearance (e.g., on its last tour, the band forgot to get haircuts, and therefore arrived in Portland sporting “some rather fetching mullets – we pronounce them ‘moolay;’” “our newest, most fetching member, Mel Draisey, adds to the band’s already considerable store of physical beauty, don’t you think?” Note to Alasdair: I fully concur, on both counts.)

2) Take note of the band’s frequent references to items inextricably linked to the Auld Sod: “We’d like to thank the Doug Fir for making us English Breakfast tea;” “later, we’ll be going to that little bar across the street, where we’ll be taking our gin.” (Not to mention all the songs dedicated to the melancholic wonders of rainfall and twilight, which are by no means exclusive British but certainly have their place in the Official Twee Handbook.) Really all that’s missing is a shout-out to Chelsea FC or Arsenal, although MacLean does mention “the football crowds have all gone home” on “Saturday.”

3) Tally up the lines from early-20th Century poets/authors the band casually drops into its work like so much encrypted code for fellow travelers (Welsh fantasist Arthur Machen is quoted in the liner notes to the band’s latest L.P., Strange Geometry, while the songs “We Could Walk Together” and “What Goes Up” borrow lines from the French surrealist poet Joe Bousquet and English poet Ralph Hodgson, respectively).

If all of this makes you shudder like some unwanted flashback to that pile of English Lit homework you left untouched your sophomore year, fear not, fellow American – the Clientele may not exactly “rock out,” per se, but are certainly MUCH more entertaining than a night spent translating Finnegan’s Wake.

Pitched somewhere betwixt the fey formalism of Belle and Sebastian and the soft-focus psychedelia of Forever Changes-era Love, the Clientele’s handiwork deliberately summons up memories of countless ‘60s rock bands through its persistent use of reverb, wavy tremolo guitar and chord progressions directly descended from forebears such as the Zombies, Donovan and Syd Barrett. MacLean doesn’t so much solo on guitar as he bursts, unleashing large clouds of complex chord clusters that occasionally solidify into sharp single notes but otherwise create an effect not unlike that of the early Galaxie 500, Felt or Mazzy Star records – rock slowed down to the sound of a single dewdrop breaking the lakewater’s still surface.

The band’s setlist featured work from throughout the course of its surprisingly lengthy career – from early, hard-to-find singles such as “We Could Walk Together” (which slyly quotes the James Bond theme song in its coda) to latter day favorites “Since K Got Over Me” and “E.M.P.T.Y.” to new songs such as “There’s a Light that Shines On Me,” a preview of the band’s forthcoming L.P. God Save the Clientele, due to be recorded in Nashville later this year with Merge labelmate Mark Nevers from Lambchop producing. The addition of Draisey on keys and viola is inspired – allowing the Clientele to reproduce the subtleties captured on its recordings but previously impossible to replicate live – and if anything, gives the band the inside track to become the Go-Betweens for the 21st Century, another group both impossibly ahead of its time and yet simultaneously attracted to the pop classicism of the past.

Of Syd Barrett’s recent passing, David Bowie recently remarked that Barrett was “the first guy I’d heard sing pop or rock with a British accent. His impact on my thinking was enormous.” Here’s hoping that there’s another generation of musicians out there keeping their minds and ears open for MacLean’s distinctly Union Jack-flavored essays on a timeless Middle England.

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