When I heard Belle and Sebastian’s “The State I Am In” blasting from a student’s car window in Pittsburgh last summer, I thought, Good, Tigermilk’s reaching the college-radio kids. And when my boss at the music repackager I copy-edit liner notes for asked me a month ago which Belle and Sebastian disc she should start with, I thought, Better, the group is edging toward the mainstream. But last week, when my favorite Scottish eight-piece usurped the suburban Starbucks’ CD-changer slot usually occupied by a Putumayo-style world-beat compilation or a point-of-purchase vocal-jazz sampler, I thought, Hold on a minute—that’s just about far enough. B&S, already hobbled by the inadvisably democratic apportionment of songwriting duties on its last album, now appears headed for the purgatory occupied by bands that, through no fault of their own, are deemed innocuous sources of incidental music for shopping. It’s time to take a look at who’s on the bench.
I don’t really travel in indie-pop circles, so the news that the Clientele, a London-based trio, is considered by some the new Belle and Sebastian reached me late. But it certainly piqued my curiosity. I’m sorry to report that grass-roots tastemakers herald not the second coming of Stuart Murdoch but merely the arrival of half-baked urban pastoralist Alasdair Maclean and his rhythm section.
Note the spelling. We’re not talking about the guy who wrote Ice Station Zebra and Force Ten From Navarone. We’re talking about a ’60s-besotted youth who sings of the moon, the stars, the morning, the evening, meadows, motorways, fevered nights, loneliness, sleeplessness, dreams, daydreams, and the rain—yes, the rain, always the rain, ever the rainy, rainy, so very rainy rain (AA-side of latest release: “Monday’s Rain”).
It’s tempting to attribute this last enthusiasm to locale, but I don’t recall grunge being similarly afflicted by the dampness that drove its practitioners indoors. Whatever the cause, precip makes an appearance in at least 50 percent of the Clientele songs I’ve attempted to transcribe. Not bad for an outfit that has yet to release an album. Though it did play the Garage last weekend and is traveling in support of at least one import LP set for release this spring.
Our guide to the great outdoors is also a master of insect lore. Mac sings of “butterflies with gilded wings” and lays out the day’s plan for a friend thus: “We’ll get high/We’ll go watch the lacewings fly.” There’s at least one other Clientele number of interest to lepidopterists and several that are sure to appeal to ornithologists, particularly specialists in nightingales and hummingbirds.
Mrs. Jones, of the famed clan of songwriters’ patsies, makes an appearance in “Five Day Morning.” It is assumed that this episode, when placed in context, predates the time of her “thing goin’ on” with Billy Paul. It’s possible the relationship between her and Maclean is not purely platonic, but, in any case, it’s not hard to imagine her trading “Wednesday afternoons” spent “dreaming of the moon” for a little L-U-V. A woman’s got needs, you know. (In my forthcoming Da Capo Press title Keeping Up With the Joneses, I intend to make sense of the path that made this well-traveled family the Zeligs of late-’60s/early-’70s pop. The patriarch, Mr. Jones, made himself known to Bob Dylan and the Bee Gees, among others, and, after an absence of some decades, Counting Crows. For the moment, it is unclear whether Miss Amanda Jones is a blood relation.)
In true period fashion, Maclean pins mundane but wistfully recalled events to the days of the week, paying homage in different songs to Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. (It’s conceivable that Thursday and Friday, too, made the cut but are obscured by Mac’s poorly articulated falsetto.) The reason behind such sentimentality, of course, is the fleetingness of all things fair. Good-bye, Ruby Tuesday!
All of which is to say that eighth-century monks were granted greater lyrical latitude than Maclean allows himself. For him, every day is a walk in the park—a soggy, chilly park only intermittently flecked with sunlight. And on what does he muse as he strolls? Days gone by, seasons turning, missed connections—everything evanescent. There’s nothing wrong with kicking around a little glum (“I’m only sad in a natural way/And I enjoy sometimes feeling this way,” Paul Weller once wrote), but Maclean presents a sensibility so beset by all that fades that he appears capable of deep, soul-twisting nostalgia for things he did earlier in the day.
The Clientele’s sound dismayingly supports such a conclusion. A few touchstones: the tune sense of Felt (admittedly a waning influence), but not the Television-style guitar interplay or the Lou Reed-cum-Tom Verlaine vox; the spaciousness and spareness of Galaxie 500, but not the ruminatively melodic bass lines; the jazz/flamenco chords of Love, but not the vocal intensity or the psychedelic risk-taking; the preciousness of the Left Banke, but not the intricacy of its arrangements; the breathy falsetto of the Zombies’ Colin Blunstone, but not his mastery of it. In other words, the Clientele gloms onto a provocative grab-bag of influences—and then leaves the most distinctive things in it behind. Observe also that the trio is less driving and less R&B-inflected than any of these acts, and you’ve got me checking Google to see if “dripcore” is a coinage already in circulation.
Where the band doesn’t fail by design, it is generally hamstrung in execution. Nothing if not ambitious, Maclean has written guitar parts that are slightly beyond his capacity to finger-pick cleanly and has set himself such tricky vocal lines, full of disjunctive leaps, mannered phrasing, and transitions into and out of falsetto, that he keens as often as he croons.
The most egregious overreaching occurs on the “Lacewings” 7-inch. Its slide guitar is the sickest I’ve heard (and that’s not “sick” in the approbative hiphop sense). Screechy and painfully off-key, the sound is so iniquitous that unless Alasdair wants Elmore James, Blind Willie Johnson, Tampa Red, and Son House to come galloping out of the starless sky and lay waste to the land, he’d better cut that shit out.
And cut it out he did. When the Clientele headlined the Chickfactor Valentine’s Do at the Garage on Sunday night, ’twas nary a slide in evidence. Maclean strove to stay within spitting distance of what he could handle. Not that he’d retreated much. He had simply started to come to grips with the technical demands of his own writing.
Practice can’t perfect what’s already down on paper, though. And a measure of black-turtlenecked charisma only goes so far—particularly if your bass player neglects to tuck in his shirt. The set list remains fairly monochromatic, the sound oomphless, and the words…yikes! Though the Zombies may have frequently gotten away clean with lyrical murder by virtue of Rod Argent’s chops and Blunstone’s pipes, the Clientele doesn’t have such resources at its disposal. (It should also be pointed out that a particular Zombies track, “Beechwood Park,” handles the Clientele’s main subject better than any of the nine or so songs the band has released.)
In the studio too soon, Maclean comes across on vinyl as badly in need of voice lessons, a binder of ear-training tapes, and a set of locking tuners. Live, his situation is not quite so dire. I imagine, though, that the market for something that makes fans “imagine the sounds of watching the sky through the new dew, the whispers of ghosts blowing kisses in you ears,” as one enrapt Net scribe purply put it, is rather limited.
Somewhere in the middle of all the foofaraw is the germ of something promising. The first song the band released, a poppy number called “We Could Walk Together,” which actually closes with a jokey musical homage to James Bond, proves that the easy path was willingly shunned. I’m hoping the guys make something out of having chosen a harder way, and not just because I’d like to be able to get some cash out of the three-and-a-half-minute video of “Reflections After Jane” I spent 15 bucks on at the show. (A flickery Super 8 affair “directed on a Sunday afternoon,” it shows Maclean and bassist James Hornsey walking moodily through cold, damp, wooded environs.) But I wouldn’t bet the price of the group’s upcoming album that anything spectacular is going to happen soon.
That’s one more thing indie aficionados love about the Clientele: The band is nowhere near ready to leave them. CP