Last week on the way in to work I listened to Runner, the new Sea And Cake album. (Well, it’s last year’s album now, but that definitely qualifies as new round these parts.) They’re one of the few remaining groups whose work I’ll buy without question, for old time’s sake; or rather, because it’s too much to relinquish such a link to what I might over-grandly call My Musical Past. They don’t vary much from release to release, but this new one is both a little lovelier and more optimistic sounding than the preceding few. Taking a wild stab I reckon it probably reflects songwriter Sam Prekop falling in love with something if not someone – ‘Harbor bridges’ certainly sounds as lovely as a love song ought. Unlike the last Sea And Cake, I’ve found myself wanting to listen to this one again, straight away; and that said, I want to go back too, and give Moonlight butterfly another chance. Runner has got that XTC-ish, Drums and wires-y feel which has gone and come at least since The biz, and has it in spades, with trilling guitars and rhythms hypnotically folding in on themselves and back out again, as kaleidoscopically, meditatively, propulsively as ever.
I was going to write more about the Sea And Cake, but I’m not sure I really need to, as Kevin has recently written a whole 21 pages on Chicago’s finest (finest, that is, alongside the Impressions / Curtis Mayfield and Terry Callier). They merit that kind of focus as much as Kevin’s thoughts merit reading. Interestingly he stops relating the story at 2003’s Glass EP, which I presume indicates his estimation of the relative worth of the albums that followed it. Diminishing returns? My own view is that Car alarm and Everybody have a lot going for them, as I discovered a while back when I jumbled up the Sea & Cake’s oeuvre and listened to it in random order over a series of days. And while for me Oui remains the peak of their endeavours, I think I’ll always be interested to hear how the Sea And Cake carry on refining their essential Sea And Cake-iness, and Sam Prekop his essential Sam Prekop-iness.
The spring that has at times felt dangerously like summer has brought not only a new Sea and Cake but also a fresh set of Clientele songs. The world may have (and can keep) its musical pairings and rivalries, but this is my Beatles and Stones, my Blur versus Oasis. For Everybody the Sea and Cake have given themselves naturalistic limitations to move their sound along (you couldn’t quite say forward, or back) and it will repay the listening that their albums always do, but today it’s the Clientele who come out on top. On God save the Clientele the fear and ghosts of Strange geometry are largely held at bay, even though the opener is ‘Here comes the phantom’; this time the spirits are carefree strollers along leafy and crypt-lined cemetery boulevards. Working within the envelope of mood by which they will probably forever be circumscribed, this is an upbeat album. Happy in its melancholia, in its state of reflection. Time is passing in a summer garden, the night is falling, you’re with the one you love, or thinking of her, and there isn’t any other place you’d rather be.
There’s craft and deliberate craftiness in the set that is the sign of a group some way along their path and at the peak of form. There are fewer mid-song surprises but the strength of the new material is that you don’t miss the sharp lefts and u-turns. The songs are rhythmically languid, occasionally upping to a more muscular groove, with James’ bass-playing as melodic as that of the Meters.
Contributors add what is particular to them, without ever distracting the Clientele – assimilating and enlarged by new member Mel Draisey – from the job of being the Clientele. Mark Nevers presents the recording skills that made Lambchop’s Is a woman such a magical mix of sound, reflection and silence. Louis Philippe’s string arrangements blend with the other instrumentation more subtly than before. Pat Sansone of the Autumn Defense and Wilco skims enough accompanying instrumental stones across the Clientele’s waters to be described as an honorary member, while Alasdair surrenders several solo spots to Pete Finney on pedal steel.
As it is with the contributors, so it is with the influences you can pick out – the Clientele’s personality subsumes any inspiration. ‘Isn’t life strange’ sounds like an interpretation of ‘A whiter shade of pale’, whose Hammond organ line is itself famously a variation on JS Bach, but it’s still a Clientele song and no court case should be forthcoming. ‘The garden at night’ sounds like Kevin Ayers fronting the Clientele of ‘I had to say this’. The Bee Gees have aptly been mentioned – the ‘Kilburn towers’ Bee Gees that is, rather than the white-suited purveyors of Saturday Night Fever, although ‘Bookshop Casanova’ has enough string-laden disco flavour that you expect ‘Ring my bell’-style synth drums to explode softly as Alasdair, no doubt wearing sunglasses, wields his Telecaster towards the song’s climax. ‘I said to the people at Merge, ‘This is going to make us millionaires.’ And they just laughed at me’ he has recounted. The drums are not quite as they might be for a dancefloor smash; it would need a remix to turn it into the hit song it threatens to be. Let’s give it to Fujiya Miyagi, or Spiller of ‘Groovejet’ fame. The Clientele’s first release was an EP shared with theaudience and others; who would have thought that they might meet again with Sophie Ellis-Bextor, if only figuratively?
Inspired by Europe, recorded in America and informed and underpinned by not entirely fashionable literary and artistic sensibilities, the Clientele are to my mind British pop royalty. God save them.