It’s only fitting that a band as anachronistic as the Clientele should be so haunted by the passage of time. Enveloped in gossamer reverb and a spectral aura of half-light and dust motes, the London trio’s gorgeous echo-chamber pop is premised on the melancholy of transience and its associated paradoxical quests: the preservation of ephemera, the capture of fugitive emotion. The mood on Suburban Light, a collection of singles dating back to 1997, and on the EP A Fading Summer (released by March Records last year), is one of faintly disorienting in-betweenness, a nagging sensation of forever changes. These almost magic-realist narratives are inhabited by fleeting presences and persistent absences; they transpire “As Night Is Falling” or “An Hour Before the Light.” The cocooning vagueness creates a porous, spacious comfort zone and memory repository, the ambience as mutable as it is diffuse. Most of these songs, never mind the exact atmospheric conditions being described (the weather, it turns out, is a beloved topic), can approximate a chilly fog or a heat mirage, depending on your mood.
The circumstances of their birth alone should earn the Clientele a place in wimp-rock legend—singer-guitarist Alasdair MacLean was apparently moved to join forces with his classmate, bassist James Hornsey, after he spied the inscription on his pencil case: FELT. MacLean, who’s also the primary songwriter, favors melodies that flamboyantly ebb and flow, make surprise detours, span an octave within a couple of notes. He delivers them in a hushed, downy tenor—shivery and slurred, vaulting precariously into falsetto—and adds warm, chiming guitars, with a clean and precise Verlaine-like approach to ornamentation.
Meanwhile the lyrics, sometimes so blurred they’re essentially onomatopoeic, amount to a deadpan record of meteorology and topography. Words and phrases, handpicked for maximum nostalgia rush, recur compulsively. Along with his photographic eye for isolated detail, MacLean has an uncanny knack for reanimating (or is it defamiliarizing?) romantic cliché. About two-thirds of the tracks on Suburban Light involve precipitation. One is actually called “Rain,” another “Monday’s Rain” (doubly poignant for being set on a Sunday evening). That the Clientele consider such a distinction crucial says plenty. The music may sound remote and nebulous, but the attempts to locate it in time and space are oddly concrete, and rigged for pseudo-Proustian impact. Time of day, day of the week, month, season, year—all meticulously transcribed and tinctured with significance; as much as anything else, the songs concern temporality, months elapsing and seasons changing from one verse to the next. Likewise, geographical landmarks (city streets and parks, suburban nowheres) are duly enumerated—the more exotically obscure the better—and by default repositioned as hallowed ground.
Over time Clientele songs come to resemble nothing so much as constellations of floating signifiers. (More pet subjects: songbirds, modes of transport, eyes, unreality. Favorite verbs: drift, fade, sigh—the latter of which MacLean manages to assign to elm trees and motorways while keeping a straight face.) Available evidence suggests that MacLean and company are, if not full-blown pretentious art-rockers, at least modest pop conceptualists with a fondness for surrealist enigmas. Their Web site, www.theclientele.co.uk, boasts the Borgesian name “the Labyrinthine Greenhouse,” and links the Gabriel García Márquez short story “Eyes of a Blue Dog” as a Thing We Like (it’s clearly a touchstone for their more oneiric, who’s-dreaming-who numbers). The lulling repetitions and sense of dissolving time could be an homage to Robbe-Grillet. Wandering the metropolis during a downpour might serve as the twee-pop version of Situationist psychogeography. They go so far as to name a song after pack-rat surrealist Joseph Cornell, whose work, even more than oft cited musical antecedents like Love, the Zombies, or the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, is the most useful analogue to the Clientele’s shifty beauty. The delicate, sanctified mystery of their best songs would be equally at home in one of Cornell’s glass-fronted shadow boxes—they share their ethereal austerity, gentle fetishism, and perfect self-containment.
Needless to say, this hermeticism was not expected to survive a live setting. Still, at Maxwell’s on June 9 and at the Knitting Factory three days later, the Clientele set aside the crutch of overdubs, and MacLean’s voice and guitar capitalized on the breathing room. At Maxwell’s, he did his best to silence a couple of loudmouths at the bar, introducing two songs with dry matter-of-factness: “This is kind of a quiet one.” Truth be told, the quiet (well, quieter) ones held up remarkably—in particular their two most ravishing songs, the swoony nocturnal cityscape “Saturday” and the plangent, piercingly direct avowal “(I Want You) More Than Ever.” Adept as he is, MacLean seemed tentative about playing the role of guitar hero, not that there were many opportunities (the quasi-surf Batman-theme windup to “We Could Walk Together”; the drunken pedal steel throughout “Lacewings”). “I Had to Say This,” Suburban Light‘s opening track, has been reinvented as obligatory set-closing rock-out, its demure psychedelic swirl testosterone-boosted into a hard-charging assault—though it was telling that at both shows MacLean sheepishly turned his back to the crowd during the climactic moments. In any case, they proved that they can operate equally well outside a vacuum, and (with the as-yet-unrecorded songs) that the purposefully finite palette of Suburban Light is scheduled to expand and maybe even brighten. To return to Joseph Cornell terms, you might say they’ve started to think outside the box—or at the very least, to peek through a crack in the pane.