Illustration from the cover of Strive and Succeed by Horatio Alger, Jr., 1872
I heard about the Clientele years ago, and they sounded like the kind of thing I enjoy - a London band that writes delicate, '60s-influenced pop with a dreamy vibe. I checked out some of their early singles and songs from their debut album, The Violet Hour, though, and found that they left no impression on me at all. It sounded right when I was listening to it, with a great reverb-heavy sound that doesn't really sound like anything else and great vocals and lyrics by frontman Alasdair MacLean. But the reverb reached some saturation point for me where it made the songs impenetrable, like a heavy lubricant that made the song's hooks slide right by without catching my ear. Later on, I picked up the band's second and third albums (Strange Geometry and God Save the Clientele) on a trip to the record store for reasons I can't recall. I didn't have the same problem with those albums - I loved them right away. And I still do. So I decided to give the early stuff another try.
Suburban Light is a collection of singles and unreleased tracks compiled a full three years before the band even put out their first album. On my first few listens, I was still having problems getting into the songs. MacLean supposedly sings most of his vocals through a guitar amplifier to get that interesting reverb sound, but on these early tracks it makes it harder for me to follow the melodies for some reason. These song's reward a little patience, though, and I soon found a lot of great pop moments lurking in the cavernous echo. Some of the songs are just a little dull, particularly "Reflections After Jane" and "Joseph Cornell", even though the latter song seems to be the collection's centerpiece. The opening track, "I Had to Say This", is as close to an upbeat pop song as this collection has, but "We Could Walk Together" and "An Hour Before the Light" also avoid sounding totally somnolent with lively drumming and a nice Byrdsy guitar jangle. And most of the slower songs, like "Monday's Rain" and the slide-guitar-driven "Lacewings", have memorable melodies as well as cozy, echoey atmospherics.
A pattern I noticed was that the later singles were generally more memorable and better than the earlier ones. The standout song for me is "(I Want You) More Than Ever", taken from a 2000 7" single. It has a lovely, yearning chorus melody and simple pop arrangement that shines in the instrumental breaks. The Clientele have another album - Bonfires on the Heath - coming out in October. MacLean has hinted that this may be the band's last album, and I can understand being concerned that the band is working in a very limited idiom. But, from what I've heard, Bonfires on the Heath may be their best work yet.
"(I Want You) More Than Ever" by the Clientele