Alone and unreal

clientele_aloneThis blog would probably not exist were it not for the Clientele.  Their music has sustained me long past the time when I imagined I might still be writing about music in this broadly review-ish sort of way.  And this despite the fact that the group once saddled me with an expensive bill – not that they ever knew they had (until now). Out and about in my car one fine spring day in 2007, with the freshly released God save the Clientele playing rather louder than it ought to have been on the stereo, I backed out of a parking space and didn’t spot an already battered Merc doing the same. An unholy alliance of insurance company and the Arthur Daley driving the Merc subsequently saw me stitched up like the proverbial kipper. Masterpiece though it may be, the album ended up costing me considerably more than the £10 I was comfortable spending on it.

Ever since, I have superstitiously refrained from playing the Clientele’s music in the car.  So I’ve been listening to Alone and unreal: the best of the Clientele only while safely sitting at my desk at home, much as I would like to take it with me everywhere I go.  When I first saw the track listing, I wondered if the group had been a little parsimonious in selecting only 11 songs – surely it could have been twice as many, and still have given any Clientele admirer acting as compiler headaches as to what to leave off?  But upon listening, it becomes clear what has been done, which is effectively to programme a new album out of songs their fans will have played so frequently that they know them inside out.  The music from the group’s different phases flows together, individual songs cast light on their neighbours, and the overall effect is to create both a journey through their output and a recognisable narrative.  Having realised this, it wouldn’t be fair, would it, to carp on about this track or that being left off.  But bloody hell, no ‘Lacewings’? No ‘Porcelain’? No ‘My own face inside the trees’? No ‘I hope I know you’? No… Stop that. Now.

The compilation picks a chronological path, which suits their development from songs recorded in a seriously lo-fi fashion to the aurally perfect productions of more recent times.  It begins with ‘Reflections after Jane’, which sees the Clientele at their softest; for me, the song is redolent of London in the late nineties.  The mood of minor melancholia, the resignation rather than racking sobs at the loss of Jane make for a beautiful piece of music, particularly when a middle eight of a kind arrives and takes this listener through the permeable glass panels of memory and into the precise mood engendered by a turn around Waterlow Park in Highgate, north London, 1999.

On ‘We could walk together’ we are again in a submerged, aquamarine sonic world of the Clientele’s own devising. This was the period in which Alasdair used to part-sabotage, part-enhance his vocals by putting them through a guitar amp, making it sound like he was ringing them in from a red public call box (put your nose to the air of these early songs, and you catch the faint smell of piss rising from the concrete floor to mingle with cigarette breath on the receiver).  The guitar is crystalline, picking up glints of both sunset and moonlight, and then there are those gorgeous words borrowed from French poet Joë Bousquet: ‘like a silver ring thrown into the flood of my heart’, a line which fits so well with the rest of the song that you wouldn’t know it was an appropriation unless it had been pointed out to you.

The mood again returns to absence, loss, and weirded-out isolation for ‘Missing’, the only choice from the group’s first album proper, The violet hour.  The song slowly and subtly unwinds, with accents picked out on an acoustic guitar; what for many groups would be a run-of-the-mill album track is transformed through sheer loveliness into a song which can justifiably feature on a ‘best of’.

Now comes what I think of as Alasdair’s lyrical and the group’s musical tour de force – ‘Since K got over me’.  Musically, it’s the closest we get on this collection to the dynamism that they could generate merely out of guitar, bass and drums in a live setting.  Alasdair’s guitar clangs and twangs, James ferments another of his ever-melodious bass lines, and Mark’s drums are as bouncy as the trampoline Alasdair refers to in the lyric.  Although this is on the surface a song about the aftermath of a relationship, I’ve often wondered whether the initial ‘K’ was deliberately chosen as an allusion to Kafka’s ‘Josef K’, and so to existence as the author of The trial and ‘Metamorphosis’ painted it.  ‘I don’t think I’ll be happy anyway / Just scratching out my name’, Alasdair sings, entirely believably.  Then ‘There’s a hole inside my skull with warm air blowing in’ gives us a Buñuel-esque vision of a character continuing to sing even though he’s been shot in the head, to the point that you feel he is actually enjoying the curious feel of the air rushing through the hole, past the remaining bone and matter. The end result is both philosophically provocative and an incredible pop song.

‘(I can’t seem) to make you mine’ marks the moment when the group expanded its palette to include strings arranged and conducted by renaissance man Louis Philippe.  The result is the Clientele at their most refined, elegant and stately – you could imagine an airing of this song in Bath’s Pump Room not leading to too many tea cups rattled in horror.  Once again, the strings evoke the loss, or rather, the never having gained, as well as ‘the ivy coiled around my hands’.

On ‘Losing Haringey’ Alasdair performs a spoken word lyric over more gorgeously melodic music, which somehow enhances the sense of disquiet, lassitude and plain weirdness
of his story.  Once again, London is a strongly depicted character, and as I listen, my own feverish wanderings about Haringey and Islington become jumbled up with his character’s: ‘I found myself wandering aimlessly to the west, past the terrace of chip and kebab shops and laundrettes near the tube station. I crossed the street, and headed into virgin territory – I had never been this way before. Gravel-dashed houses alternated with square 60s offices, and the wide pavements undulated with cracks and litter. I walked and walked, because there was nothing else for me to do, and by degrees the light began to fade.’

Lyrically, what is gradually being revealed through this particular choice of songs are the existential battles and romantic adventures of the persona inhabited by the group’s singer.  Alasdair has consistently espoused a philosophical as well as literary view of the world via the medium of pop music, and Alone and unreal’s trajectory only serves to hammer that point home, both through the choice of those words for the title of the collection, and through the themes which keep on surfacing from first note to last, themes which have also informed the sequence of Clientele cover art which began with Belgian artist Paul Delvaux’s ‘The viaduct’ for Strange geometry and is maintained with John Whitlock’s faceless, de Chirico-esque collage for Alone and unreal.

Well now, but here’s a change in the mood, a twist in the plot.  ‘Bookshop Casanova’ breezes in with a lyric best summed up by the lines ‘ah come on darling / let’s be lovers’.  The strings, the strident drums, and a guitar solo half-inched from the Isley Brothers’ ‘Summer breeze’ only go to enhance the fabulous seventies disco mood.  In intent and effect, the end result is not dissimilar to Whit Stillman’s literary take on Studio 54 in his film The last days of disco.

By the time ‘The queen of Seville’ comes round, and in spite of its blue lyric, it’s starting to feel like this just might be a tale with a happy ending; the music has a palpable yearning quality to it, and even if ‘it’s gonna be a lonely, lonely day’, at least ‘she sends me roses’.  Gentle piano figures and slowly stretched-out limbs of pedal steel underscore the waiting, as do the verses sung under Alasdair’s breath, as if to himself, or his lover, before he lifts his eyes and his voice again to curse his luck.

‘Never anyone but you’ is a thing of perfection, simultaneously sinewy and musically delicate. The character’s mind is still haunted by his surroundings, by phantoms and imaginary choirs – presumably singing these very harmonies, prompting Alasdair to take them down verbatim – but now a chorus line of ‘I can only see you’ continually rings out, giving the song an overriding feeling of almost stalker-like obsession.

‘Harvest time’ manages to be plangent, spooked and spooky – ‘Bats from the eaves go shivering by / Scarecrows watch the verges of light / I hear a choir on the heath at night / But no one’s there’ – and yet somehow also celebratory, in a hallucinogenic, heat-hazed way. An actual choir in the form of backing vocals from Mel and Mark softly and beautifully reinforces this sense of the cyclical nature of life, as well as the philosophical acceptance that ‘Everything here has a place and a time / We’re only passing through’.

The most recently recorded song, ‘On a summer trail’, brings the album to a close. To these ears, it does feel a little like an added extra – while it’s a good Clientele song, it’s perhaps not exceptional, like the rest.  That said, it may well grow on me the more I hear it, as so many of their less immediate songs have, and besides, it also fits the narrative, concluding the story on the positive, forward-looking note that ‘Bookshop Casanova’ first heralded.

The CD comes with a free download of The sound of young Basingstoke, formative recordings which date from 1994, although the group were by then sufficiently inspired to have already come up with early favourites like ‘Saturday’ and ‘Rain’.  Anyone who already has a copy of It’s art Dad might be a little bit underwhelmed by Basingstoke, as there are a number of tracks in common, and nothing which really bests the early gems captured on Suburban light.  That said, songs like ‘The evening in your eyes’, ‘When she’s tired of dancing’, and ‘From a window’ are well worth hearing again.

I can’t help envying the listener who comes to Alone and unreal having heard little or nothing of the Clientele before, because if they like what they hear, then the pleasure of discovering their five albums – so selectively plundered for this compilation – remains open and ahead of them.  I’d love to be able to take that journey again, but equally, I’m happy I was along for the ride in the first place.

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