This 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.
‘He was woken by music. It beckoned him, lilting and insistent; delicate music, played by delicate instruments that he could not identify, with one rippling, bell-like phrase running through it in a golden thread of delight. There was in this music so much of the deepest enchantment of all his dreams and imaginings that he woke smiling in pure happiness at the sound. In the moment of his waking, it began to fade, beckoning as it went, and then as he opened his eyes it was gone.’ – Susan Cooper, The dark is rising
How to pick one Clientele single above all the others? They might have had four or five entries in my chart of 45 45s. Which should I go for, from my shortlist?
‘What goes up’ perhaps, because it was their first, and mine, and could consider itself rather harshly done by in being left off the UK version of the Suburban light compilation?
‘(I want you) More than ever’ for being one of the best of their strand of supremely melodic, yearning pop songs?
‘(I can’t seem to) make you mine’ because a lovely song is made lovelier through the sharing of the vocals with Pam Berry, whose mahogany tones contrast perfectly with the ivy-bedecked oak of Alasdair’s voice?
‘Since K got over me’, being the culmination of Alasdair’s uniquely philosophical song-writing, around about the point at which it matured into a world-view quite apart from any other lyricist? (Not to mention how the group’s music mirrors the lyric’s existential malaise perfectly.)
Or ‘Lacewings’, with its mind-bending slide guitar, iridescence and smoke-hazed lyrical high?
The last of these, I think, because the approach the Clientele took on ‘Lacewings’ underpins why I and many others like them so much – melodic spontaneity coupled with a gift for timeless or transcendent music, set against words which while being kite-high (or in other cases, lead balloon-low) anchor the group in a specific time and place. These have a lacewing tenderness which make them particularly special.
‘Only my words are real tonight
We’ll get high and we’ll go watch the lacewings fly’
Admiration doesn’t lessen to know that Alasdair’s slide guitar part – to my ears taking its cue from the playing on Television’s ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ – was improvised at the point of recording the song, and done in one take. It’s quite something to have bottled those moments of translucent invention so immediately, and for all time.
The Clientele may be on hold, but together with Lupe Núñez-Fernández, Alasdair MacLean is back as one half of Amor de Días. Any music that Alasdair makes other than as a strictly guest picker is of course going to be imbued with his sensibility, so there are many moments when Street of the love of days might be a Clientele album, but there are just as many when it could not, thanks to the blending of his songwriting with Lupe’s. It’s generally lighter than the often sombre and haunted tones of the Clientele, and more consistently acoustic, but then perhaps it’s also poppier than the Clientele have been at any time since their early singles were collected together as Suburban light. Vocal duties are alternated and you get the sense that the duo are having a conversation, a dialogue; not an inward-looking one, but one where both writers are looking out into the world from slightly different vantage points, a world of urban and pastoral light, deriving from both sources something of the same feeling.
Bracketed by the opening and closing ‘Foxes’ song’ , the track list reads like the contents of a volume of bucolic nineteenth century poetry, from ‘House of flint’ to ‘Wild winter trees’, taking in ‘Bunhill Fields’ and ‘Touchstone’. But although the setting is quintessentially English, the music is flecked with Iberian and (less obviously) Brazilian influences; that track listing disguises a number of songs sung in Spanish. You could triangulate three other duos to end up with Alasdair and Lupe – the Catalanonian blending of Guillermo Scott Herren and Eva Puyuelo Muns as Savath and Savalas, whose Apropa’t in particular has the same feel of magic and light; John and Yoko, as late as Double fantasy; and, given the harmonies of ‘Dream (dead hands)’, the Everly Brothers. But that probably demonstrates my listening more than theirs.
It’s as instrumentally rich as we have become accustomed to the Clientele being, with a variety of guests adding to the pot – Damon & Naomi, Louis Philippe, Gary Olson of Ladybug Transistor. Produced by Ken Brake, it sounds gorgeous, quite apart from making any judgment of the songs themselves.
Stand-out moments are ‘House of flint’, a song which deserves to have been made to sound as lovely as it does. ‘Harvest time’ is here in its original form, softer and dreamier and a little more nineteenth century than the sharply psychedelic version recorded for Bonfires on the heath. And just like the album as a whole, the title song winds its ivy melodies around you.
Not so much a new album as a collection of offcuts, but you won’t be surprised to learn that I think the Clientele’s offcuts are better than most groups’ best. Minotaur gives you a quick romp through many previously encountered Clientele touchstones: symbolism; the Verlaines at one remove (it’s impossible to think that Alasdair didn’t have their ‘Death and the maiden’ in mind on writing his own far jauntier tribute to Paul Verlaine); the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band; instrumental Felt or Satie or Chopin or possibly all three; the supernatural and myth and legend. It also shows that I was off target with my concluding assessment that Bonfires on the heath displayed signs of the Clientele running out of both ideas and steam, for all of these songs were recorded alongside those that made it onto the album, and were I suspect left off largely for thematic reasons rather than owing to any lack of quality.
Leading off is the title track, written from the perspective of the minotaur waiting in the labyrinth for Theseus to come, which is a lovely conceit, though of course if Alasdair really does feel like the minotaur, that’s maybe not so good. But I guess we all do, at times. Well, I do. In contrast, the music is the Clientele at their crystalline best, acoustic picking and sighing violins as the clear water pattering and burbling over the bedrock of bass and drums underneath.
‘As the world rises and falls’ slurs and drones its sweetly weary way, five minutes of backwards West Coast freewheeling. ‘No. 33’ shows a career in film music awaits Mark Keen after he boxes and shelves his Clientele drumsticks. ‘The Green Man’ is follow-up or companion piece to ‘Losing Haringey’; Alasdair’s narration dwells impressively on dust, though not, I think, the same dust around which Philip Pullman built His dark materials.
And old-time live favourite ‘Jerry’ finally makes it to the status of official release. An oddity in the Clientele repertoire, it’s been a problem song to record. On early hearings it seemed impressively like a juggernaut colliding with a dainty sports car; when Alasdair felt he was up against it, he played ‘Jerry’’s guitar like he really wished it was an audience-killing machine-gun. But it’s impossible to get quite that level of attack in a recording studio, quite the level of contrast that used to stun their audience. They’ve done their best though.
So it’s a Clientele chocolate box assortment, and I’ll happily eat most, leaving a couple till last; ‘Strange town’ and ‘Nothing here is what it seems’ are the orange crème and Turkish Delight respectively.
- The Clientele – Jerry (via Stereogum)
I should really plaster this with declarations of interest, as one among the folk behind the Hangover Lounge concern is a good friend of mine, but the truth is I’d be writing about their first EP regardless, because (a) it contains the first chance to hear Amor de Días, Alasdair MacLean of the Clientele’s new side venture in the company of Lupe Núñez-Fernández, and (b) it contains the first new recording by the Claim for nigh on twenty years. So for me it’s an event as much as a record. I wrote about the groups together once, the Clientele and the Claim, little imagining that their key players would end up in 2010 on either side of a nicely heavy slab of vinyl.
I suspect the Amor de Días album, set for sometime release on Merge, will be something of a grower (there’s a tantalising short medley from it on the Amor website). ‘New wine’ is the first chance to hear how the sound might vary from that of the Clientele, softer and subtler even than the Lupe-featuring ‘No dreams last night’ on God save.., if that’s possible. It’s also notable for hymning a part of London that few if any have hitherto, namely Crystal Palace.
‘Old’ is the rueful, timeless number by the Claim, a reflection on ageing and death and carrying on which they might perhaps have written back in the day (‘Dear’ on the Black path retrospective suggests as much) but seems all the more poignant for the two Daves being – ahem – that much closer themselves to the subject they’re writing about (as of course we all are). It puts me in mind of Colin Moulding’s song ‘Dying’ on Skylarking – ‘what sticks in my mind is the sweet jar on the sideboard, and your multi-coloured tea cosy’ – and of Ray Davies. The Claim for me were always in that league, and they still are. An atypical typical pop group.
Of the other contributors, Hacia Dos Veranos turn in a lovelier instrumental than one called ‘The cat and the cucumber’ has any right to be, while Allo Darlin’s ‘Tallulah’ is pretty too; no prizes for guessing whom they are referencing with the title. Funnily enough you can imagine Robert Forster doing a nicely wry cover version.
Three cheers then to the Hangover Loungers for making it happen, and for what are high quality production values for a first venture as a record label. There are two more EPs to come, and one of them features Rozi Plain, and no doubt many of the other acts who have graced the Sunday afternoon club with their acoustic presence, so readers would be well advised to collect the set.
Everything here has a place and a time
We’re only passing through
It’s no longer allowed in this country, no doubt for good reason, but back when I was a boy working on a farm over the summer, great excitement met the days when we would burn the stubble in recently harvested wheat and barley fields. There was an art to it, setting the fire according to wind direction, pitchforking the discarded stems to keep the fire moving along the harvested lines – and making sure that the fire didn’t jump up trees or into neighbouring fields or properties. Scorched by sun and fire, we youngsters – authorised fire raisers! – couldn’t get enough of it. The old boys would come down to lean on their pitchforks, quiet satisfaction in their eyes. I suspect that even before it was banned, farmers knew it didn’t add that much more to the soil than you would get by ploughing the stubble back in; but it was a seasonal ritual and joy to observe the leaping flames and, once they’d moved on, the blackened, smouldering earth left behind.
It’s one of the images I hold in mind as I listen to Bonfires on the heath, the new Clientele album, a personal conflation of its themes of harvest and bonfires. You have to hand it to Alasdair MacLean and the Clientele. For the fourth time in a row, they have written a set of songs and unified them across an album so that a discarded image or sound in one song is taken up and explored in greater detail in another. This time around it’s a return to nature, a reconnection with the seasons. Bats flit across moonlit skies, and from ‘Harvest time’ to ‘Share the night’; bonfires burn orange against the black of a moonless November night. Summer comes and goes, harvest festival marking its end, mostly unobserved, though in Alasdair’s lyrics and themes there is perhaps a tacit recognition of a secularist’s debt to an Anglican upbringing mixed in with the ghosts and pagan celebration. All that’s missing is pumpkins.
The opening trio of songs form the album’s core, leaving it a little top heavy. For ‘I wonder who we are’, they have infused the lightness and deliberately banal joy of a Tropicália-era Caetano Veloso song with their hallmark shot of estrangement. Then come those hues of autumn. ‘Bonfires on the heath’, as languid as anything the Clientele have recorded, though again, not without an underlying edge of restlessness – ‘how’m I going to get myself to sleep?’ ‘Harvest time’ is the dreamy psychedelic folk equal of the haunting song of more or less the same name on Michael Head’s The magical world of the Strands. The Clientele’s song searches for the point at which the impermanent – us human beings – meet with the permanent (or the more permanent) – the soil and the seasons – a point encapsulated in Alasdair’s image of watching scarecrows.
Beyond these three, ‘Sketch’ allows you to construct your own connections out of a whispered lyric of 25 apparently random words; the Clientele’s version of the tarot, perhaps. It’s a pity the music is so obviously redolent of sixties Hammond groove – with less archetypal musical accompaniment, we might have had a defining moment in the Clientele’s discography. ‘Three month summers’ is on the other hand gloriously archetypal Clientele, shot through with suburban light, the mood of the violet hour and plenty of strange geometry.
Bonfires on the heath has been billed as a return to the Clientele’s roots, which to some extent is true. Here’s ‘Graven Wood’, an early song written by Innes Phillips while he was still in the band, recast with added drone. The lyrics throughout are simpler, more youthful, less inclined to the abstract than Strange geometry. The closing song even begins ‘I’ve been walking in the park…’ which is to Alasdair MacLean as ‘Woke up this morning…’ is the to the blues. But this is a group who’ve written strings of musically rounded songs, and they cannot replicate the narrowness nor the edge of the three piece as it was when it first came to musical maturity. So the songs are softened by musical and lived experience – and by the presence of the member who wasn’t there at the outset. Mel’s teardrop piano, gently bowed violin and backing vocals soften the sound, and make it impossible for the Clientele to rediscover their jagged edge. The vast improvement in the way they have recorded their music over the years has allowed us to enter a sound world of compensating and rarely matched distinction, so that I tend not to miss Alasdair’s guitar heroics. Yet while this is again a beautifully recorded as well as perfectly autumnal record, it’s not one I feel quite able to set it alongside XTC’s Mummer, or The magical world of the Strands.
Alasdair has spoken of his doubts about the future of the Clientele. Despite the heights it reaches, Bonfires on the heath as a whole is slighter than the group’s previous albums. Maybe they have run out of ideas, and steam – a cover and the return to two earlier songs suggests that’s the case. I applaud any group who re-record an earlier song in an attempt to get something more or different out of it, but I don’t think the Clientele have succeeded with their second go at ‘Share the night’. Problem is, they nailed it first time around. I find myself wishing that they’d kept back the other songs from the That night, a forest grew EP for this LP, rather than nobly honouring their promise of three discs for Acuarela.
The last words of that closing song, ‘Walking in the park’, are: ‘With the darkness coming down / I don’t know what more I can say / what I can say’.
28th September 2009. Set your faces to stunned and make a note of the date in your diaries, for that’s the day on which the Claim finally make it onto CD with the release of Black path: retrospective 1985-1992. Who’d have thought that in 2009 they would be releasing a record within eight days of the Clientele, whose Bonfires of the heath is out on 6th October; another astonishing preview track (‘Harvest time’) is available here. (I first hitched the two groups together for this 2001 piece for Tangents.)
To celebrate, here – courtesy of the Right Honorable Vic Templar – is a link to a YouTube outing of one of the previously unreleased songs on the retrospective, the not entirely typical ‘Between heaven and Woolworths’.
And here are the pages from Pantry For The World which celebrated the Claim’s Boomy Tella (‘the best LP of 1988’) and their subsequent singles for Esurient. The quote about the Claim live came from a letter written by one Richey Edwards, whose group had just made their London debut supporting the Claim.
Here also is one half of the Pantry For The World supplement, featuring a piece about the Claim by Kevin Pearce, who wrote about them with the appreciation and bias appropriate to the man who was releasing their records.
Black path tracklisting:
Picking up the bitter little pieces
Birth Of A Teenager
Mike The Bike (Featuring Vic Templar)
Being A Minor
Between Heaven And Woolworths (For Brian Patten)
Not So Simple Sharon Says
God, Cliffe And Me
Do You Still Feel?
Down By The Chimney
Wait And See
Seen And Done It All
That’s one half of Boomy Tella by my reckoning, and sadly means no room for the trombone-fuelled knees-up of ‘Beneath the reach’ or ‘All about hope’, on which the Claim were at their most exquisitely pastoral. Fingers crossed Boomy will before long get a release in its own right. Neither ‘This pencil…’ nor ‘Another yesterday’ feature – they can be downloaded here.
There is also at least one live date confirmed at the Royal Function Rooms in Rochester on Saturday 19th September with the possibility of a London appearance.
- The Claim (MySpace)
With this fourth and final Pantry fanzine, I finished the journey on which I had embarked in issue 3, and cast myself away on a desert island, thoroughly isolated. But having recognised the need to stand free of my influences and heroes, I wasn’t quite able to define myself with as much weight and clarity. It was summer 1989, and I was on the dole after finishing my third year exams; the Berlin Wall had not yet quite come down, and under the weight of the third Thatcher government and the all-embracing influence of situationism (it was even the subject of my dissertation), I did not feel free. So I roamed – as the Clientele song has it – emptily through Holloway, seeking solace in the streets, in the messiness of overlapping relationships, and – as ever – in music. The last being the simplest thing to hold on to and examine, as I turned life over in my hands. So that – no surprise – was what Pantry for the world was about. Not that you’d know from the cover, which with highly refined indifference gives no indication of the contents. Instead simply that arch and ironic title, whose grandiloquence is softened once you register that it’s a tribute to the Isley Brothers’ ‘Harvest for the world’, which I had grown to love that summer.
The photograph is of the house that stood opposite the point at which Hertslet Road was met by Roden Street, where I lived. The house never recovered from its state of disrepair. Not long after the photo was taken, work began on the Nags Head shopping centre, which also erased Bovay Place and the squatted red brick building that stood there.
But while I stop here with my thoughts awhile, mourning lost streets of London, why not hurry on over to The London nobody sings? The party’s in full swing, and it surely won’t be long before the scribe behind Your heart out posts a song which celebrates the part of London that you know and love best. (The same scribe, I should add, who twenty years ago contributed a piece to Pantry for the world, as we shall soon reveal.)
Great to to see residents of the Five Boroughs taking up the challenge to bring us The New York nobody sings as well. Just need Paris and Munich now.
We are the Clientele, and we are on top form, if the lead-off track from Bonfires on the heath is anything to go by. For ‘I wonder who we are’, they have infused the lightness and deliberately banal joy of a Tropicália-era Caetano Veloso song with their hallmark shot of estrangement. You can download ‘I wonder who we are’ here or here (where you’ll also see the album’s artwork). Bonfires is due out in October on Merge, just in time for us in the UK to use it as the backdrop to our celebrations of Guy Fawkes’ honest intentions.
‘Share the night’ from That night, a forest grew reappears on Bonfires on the heath, which allows me to mention that I think I’ve chanced upon the source of that EP’s title – the children’s book Where the wild things are by Maurice Sendak (1963):
That night in Max’s room a forest grew
and grew until his ceiling hung with vines
and the walls became the world all around
To put it much more bluntly – you just wonder why you bothered. You just wonder whether the choices you made – to be an artist and make music on your own terms – trapped you. The deeper you go into yourself, the more chance you have of becoming lost, and I think that’s something that plays out throughout this record.
As we await what may or may not turn out to be the final Clientele record, Bonfires on the heath, here are some thoughts elicited from Alasdair MacLean by Ryan Dombal of Pitchfork.
The Clientele’s That night, a forest grew EP is finally available for purchase (you can hear it in full here). Already discussed in these pages, ‘Share the night’ is the stand-out song of the four; once again Alasdair languidly tosses out fragments of which poets would be proud (‘as the baby bats fly through the porcelain cracks’) above music which sounds like Greeting from LA-era Tim Buckley informed by three subsequent decades of dance music. ‘Retiro Park’ runs it close with its somnambulant vocal, blurred at the edges, melting like candle wax. In keeping with groove the Clientele have found within themselves, Mel has downed the fiddle and scraper to add piano and organ to this and the other songs. ‘Retiro Park’ shares its Northern soul stomp and glide with ‘George says he has lost his way in this world’, a title which allows us to hope that we might have a Freshies thing going on here. Younger readers may not be aware of Chris Sievey’s group, whose singles – before Chris turned into eyeball-headed Frank Sidebottom – included ‘I’m in love with the girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore checkout desk’, and ‘I can’t get ‘Bouncing babies’ by the Teardrop Explodes’. As I recall the latter was extended parenthetically outwards by a further factor of one: ‘I can’t get ‘I can’t get ‘Bouncing babies’ by the Teardrop Explodes’ by the Freshies’, only my memory can’t dredge up the name of the smart alecks responsible.
The George in question in the Clientele song is George Henderson of Dunedin-based Flying Nunsters the Puddle. ‘I’ve lost my way in this world’ appears on their recent LP, No love – no hate, which is well worth the price of admission, with meandering guitar lines that teeter thrillingly on the edge of disaster but just about keep their balance. George reveals himself to be the missing link between another man who lost his way in this world before finding it again – Vic Godard – and Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard, whose state of certitude about his place in this world I’m not qualified to comment on. Obviously I would like to prevail upon someone to progress this Puddle-Clientele chain one further step by penning ‘The Clientele say that George says he has lost his way in this world’.
There is still another joker on the new Clientele EP in the form of the title track, a spoken word companion piece to ‘The garden at night’, with a spiral staircase of guitar whose spirit if not actual hook I would wager has been borrowed unwittingly or otherwise from ‘Ten feet tall’ on XTC’s Drums and wires.
Clientele completists can also (and again at last) grab the download-only Bookshop Casanova EP, featuring their cover of Television’s ‘The fire’ and ‘The girl from somewhere’ – a song which would have fitted comfortably on either The violet hour or Strange geometry – from a variety of outlets (listed here on the Clientele’s forum), a number of whom rather charmingly describe the girl as being from ‘nowhere’ rather than ‘somewhere’.
There’s another Clientele cat to bag while you’re at it, and that is their ‘Your song’ from film musical The bigtop, and its accompanying and cunningly titled soundtrack album Songs from the bigtop. As far as I can tell the movie hasn’t seen the light of day. All of the songs for the film were written by its director, Devon Reed, who then collaborated with the group for whom he had written the song, so if nothing else you can rest easy in the knowledge that the song is not a cover of the old Elton John chestnut. It is in fact a rather lovely miniature to stand alongside ‘Bicycles’, and the Clientele inhabit the song to the extent that you would swear it was a MacLean original.
Last but not least, there is Country music: songs for Keith Girdler, Keith being the erstwhile singer for Blueboy who sadly died last year. The Clientele have contributed a re-recording of ‘Breathe in now’, a song demoed prior to Strange geometry, alongside tracks by Trembling Blue Stars, the Would-be-goods, and Biff Bang Pow!, as well as Blueboy’s fellow Sarah stalwarts St. Christopher, the Wake, and the Orchids. Released by Siesta, the proceeds from the album are being donated to the Martlets Hospice in Hove.
Round these parts, the release of new Clientele songs is always cause for celebration, but especially so in the case of ‘Share the night’, which continues to mine the unlikely seam opened up by ‘Bookshop Casanova’, a sound inspired by Alasdair attempting to write a song with the petit four lightness of Spiller’s ‘Groovejet’. In terms of underlying pick’n’mix, ‘Share the night’ once again manages a blend which in lesser hands would go horribly wrong, but in the Clientele’s becomes an extension of their very particular sound-world – a seaside pier from which to gaze not only at that alien mass of water that is the past but also at the skies of the future, their blues fringed with (a slightly menacing) orange.
Or, as one member of the Clientele Forum puts it, ‘kind of Sister Sledge meets Orange Juice round at Jimmy Page’s house’. There’s also a little bit of Dylan in there (although as with earlier Clientele songs, it’s strange how you notice the likeness to Bob of Alasdair’s phrasing less with each subsequent listen). But it’s that confluence of archetypal seventies and eighties guitar styles, chopping up the groove, and chasing the dragon, which brings ‘Share the night’ home more or less level with ‘Bookshop Casanova’.
The That night, a forest grew EP is out soon on Acuarela Records.
Apologies for trying to set the record for the greatest number of post titles utilising Go-Betweens songs, but The Clientele’s cover of ‘Orpheus beach’ can now be heard on the Rare victory tribute to Grant McLennan site (as previously mentioned here).
You might also want to get yourself over to Bradley’s Almanac, where the full Clientele set from Boston Museum of Fine Arts earlier this year is available with a quality of sound that anyone who’s seen them in London will not be entirely used to. On the subject of covers, there’s a great, concise rendering of Television’s ‘The fire’ for one of the encores.
At best, tribute albums are hit and miss; at their worst they are a train-wreck of cherished songs, carriage after calamitously mauled carriage. I’m hoping that when Love goes on! A tribute to Grant McLennan appears, it has at least some selective repeat play potential. The Clientele will tackle ‘Orpheus beach’, while Paul Handyside of Hurrah! is attempting – with greater inherent risk – ‘Bachelor kisses’. No-one appears to have been brave or foolhardy enough as yet to take on ‘Cattle and cane’, but I guess there’s still time for someone to entertain us with that error of judgement. On the Rare Victory site you can hear what the Orchids have made of ‘Magic in here’ and no less than five competing versions of ‘Love goes on’, the winner being Private Eleanor, although I think the Bank Holidays can count themselves unlucky. Best of all on current display is ‘The Devil’s eye’ as performed by GB3 and Angie Hart. GB is Glenn Bennie who recorded with Grant in the year before he died, while Angie Hart was the singer in Frente! who worked similar magic on New Order’s ‘Bizarre love triangle’ back in 1994. The timbre of her voice is not unlike Grant’s and yet of course it has the advantage over the male interpreter of bringing something other to the song. Couple this with her perfectly judged phrasing and you have a cover that even the Clientele may struggle to better.