If Strange Geometry is any indication, the long-standing hipster backlash against R.E.M. appears, finally, to have ended. Or at least it’s ended in the northern London district of Walthamstow, where the Clientele recorded its second and latest proper long-player and the atmosphere is always as poetic as a long, lingering late-summer evening in semirural Georgia. Indeed, Strange Geometry harks back to the one-two punch of Chronic Town and Murmur with such playful and affectionate abandon that it’s almost as though jangle pop’s A-listers never released such it-can’t-be-them duds as Green, Monster, and, truth be told, even the career-resurrecting Out of Time.
That last phrase is as good a descriptor of any of where in the musical universe core Clientele members Alasdair MacLean, James Hornsey, and Mark Keen reside. Consider the new record’s wispy, reverb-laden “Theme From Elidor,” which not only name-checks a classic children’s fantasy novel about discovering the passageway to a magical world in a war-scarred British city, but also allows its narrator to confide that “Strongest of all was the feeling of 1982-ness.” OK, that’s a year before Murmur came out, but more important, it’s nine years before “Shiny Happy People” did. If MacLean & Co. have ever even heard that infernally peppy, click-tracked slab of chart-baiting pabulum, they’re not letting on. Instead, they seem to have absorbed all the early influences of their American precursors: ’60s-style folk-pop in general and the Velvet Underground and the Byrds in particular.
How else to explain an instantly recognizable toe-tapper such as “Since K Got Over Me”? The album’s set-opener is replete with gracefully arpeggiated guitars and a bass line that propels its hook into the stratosphere—just like those that Mike Mills used to serve up back before he started dressing like a rhinestone cowboy. True, frontman MacLean mostly forgoes Michael Stipe–style poetic mumbling in favor of words that you can actually make out. But from the title on down, the tune’s lyrics are private and inscrutable, opening with a paean to “Juliet”—not K—before MacLean gets “on my knees/Speaking in tongues/In a washed out sun.”
The damn thing somehow manages to be both somber and euphoric, a moody think piece that never neglects the catchy parts. It’s perfect pop, in other words, at least as that term has been understood since the postpunk era of, say, circa 1982. That’s true of the rest of the album, as well. “I Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” layers chord changes borrowed from the Velvets’ “Femme Fatale” on top of a featherbed of violins that come courtesy of sleepover pals Nikki Gleed and Sarah Squires. “My Own Face Inside the Trees” laces well-placed Hammond organ through singsong melody powered mainly by MacLean’s ringing, tremoloed guitar. This track—one of the disc’s numerous five-starrers—is a gently memorable tune that finds MacLean “running errands like a jerk” before making good on the song’s hippie-dippy title with a refrain that includes a koan. “Like the sea inside a shell,” he intones ruefully, “everything speaks to itself.”
On the other hand, it could be that MacLean is just trying his hand at rock criticism: That line could serve as a caption for the entirety of Stipe’s early vocal attack, which the similarly voiced MacLean has obviously studied hard. To be fair, Strange Geometry does makes it clear that the Clientele have influences that run deeper—if not necessarily wider—than the Georgia kudzu famously rendered in sepia on R.E.M.’s debut LP. At certain points on the album—the chiming “Impossible,” say, or “Elidor” (known to non–iTunes users as “Losing Haringey”)—the band conjures the Church of The Blurred Crusade, a jangle-pop jewel that landed in the bins in, yes, 1982.
The disc also owes much to one of New Zealand’s chief contributions to the cause, the Chills. Indeed, Brian O’Shaughnessy’s moody and murky production work here almost seems like a tip of the hat to Martin Phillipps’ once and future outfit, a band whose best album wasn’t called Submarine Bells for nothing: The thing sounded as if it had been recorded underwater. So, too, do Strange Geometry tracks such as the string-swept “Step Into the Light” and the waltzish “When I Came Home From the Party,” a song whose chord progression bears eerie (and unlikely) similarity to the one that’s propped up Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” for lo these many years.
Echoes of the Association, Big Star, Galaxie 500, and dream-pop luminaries Felt abound, too. “Standing on the shoulders of giants,” Stipe once sang, “leaves me cold.” But that’s not a hang-up for the Clientele, which sometimes turns listening to its latest into a game of Spot the Influence. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that elegant folk-poppers such as “Geometry of Lawns,” “K,” or “Spirit” could even exist if it weren’t for these fellas’ no doubt fabulous record collections.
Still, it’s R.E.M. that rings loudest here, particularly on the disc’s show-stoppingest number, “E.M.P.T.Y.,” a track that fuses chamber-pop gentility with a hook borrowed from Murmur’s “We Walk.” MacLean serves up more of his mellifluous, head-scratching lyrics, words that work mainly as anchors for the tune’s gorgeous, Byrdsian melody. “What is the colour & the number/When happiness begins?” he asks in seeming seriousness. “When the knight waits in the/Laurels hesitating?” But then come the indelible images of urban transcendence: “I found a clarity…/In fag-end weeks before I left for/School the darkness in the pylons/& the smoke & creosote.” Not to mention that Left Banke–worthy string arrangement by record-collector-adored art-pop auteur Louis Philippe.
Derivative? You bet. But then again, why deny yourself such delights? After all, once Strange Geometry has wound down with its—but of course—autumnal set-closer, “The Six of Spades,” you’re always free to fire up the difficult-listening likes of Boredoms, the Fiery Furnaces, or any number of other sonically adventurous bands. Besides, the best janglers have always balanced obvious pleasures with more elusive ones. From the Clientele to early R.E.M. back to the Byrds, the masters of the genre have created music that’s keenly aware of being instantly likeable: A three-minute pop song is ephemeral because, well, most pleasures are. Light, airy, and utterly familiar, Strange Geometry is also darker, heavier, and stranger than you think. CP
The Clientele performs at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29, at Iota, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. For more information, call (703) 522-8340.