Sunday, March 23, 2014

Reflections After The Clientele

"I Never saw it as a career, to be honest. I still am a believer that pop and rock and roll music can be art." - Alasdair MacLean, leader of The Clientele, in conversation with WFUV producer Andrew Hirshman, November 9th, 2009.

On their first album, Suburban Light, The Clientele almost seemed like a band designed to be fetishized, with their hazy but musically literate take on sixties psych-pop (via Felt and Luna) along with their innate British melancholy. Essentially a set of demos swathed in reverb, the album was also a mere prototype of the sounds Alasdair MacLean heard in his head. "We were just waiting to get in a proper studio and have strings, brass, choirs - Phil Spector crossed with Martin Hannett production," MacLean recalled on the Merge Records website earlier this year. "At the time (2000), every engineer wanted to make every band sound like Radiohead, which just broke everyone's heart. We couldn't get a warm sound anywhere we went in those days."

And so it came to pass: despite a further 10 year trajectory and four increasingly accomplished albums, there are those who hold Suburban Light as the peak of The Clientele's discography. While I love it, I can't agree. Similarly to the debut by The Smiths, I hear a band well on its way but not quite there. In both cases, the production doesn't always do justice to some magnificent songs and both Morrissey and MacLean indulged early on in some ill-advised falsetto. Perhaps the struggle towards mastery, rather than its achievement, is more attractive to a certain kind of listener. My opinion may put me in the minority (wouldn't be the first time) but even with the devotion of those early fans and hints of an expanding impact in the U.S., a shift in MacLean's songwriting - and maybe economic issues - led the band to go on "indefinite hiatus" in 2011.

Now with Merge announcing a deluxe reissue of Suburban Light, The Clientele made a rare appearance at The Bell House last Friday night. It wasn't really their show, however, as the line-up was put together by the Chickfactor zine to celebrate their 22nd birthday. This meant that there were three preliminary acts to get through before MacLean and his cohort took the stage. First up were The Saturday People, who haven't released anything since 2003 and may not have rehearsed since then, either. I don't want to be unkind, so I'll say no more. Next was Barbara Manning, who at one time in her 30 year career headed up SF Seals and Go-Luckys, and who now teaches high school in California. Here she performed solo, and while her banter and stage-presence were charming, the lack of a band and the fact that her guitar was often out of tune, caused me and my friend to once again decamp for the bar.

Talk and bourbon led us to return perhaps later than we should have and we found Versus in the middle of a song. Unlike the first two acts, this veteran band - active (mostly) since 1992 - came ready to play. Richard Balyut wielded his Gibson SG with authority and interlocked nicely with his brother James's Fender Jazzmaster. Fontaine Toups, who alternated vocals with Richard, often played near the middle of the neck of her bass, conjuring up a warm tone. The third Balyut brother, Edward, held it down on the drums, and they played a number of new songs. While the new material was in no way "confounding" (as Richard said), it was convincing and seemed to indicate that Versus is committed to being around for a while. While they were never a necessity in my life, they were always a welcome presence and I'm glad to see them back. Fans should be ecstatic.

The Clientele, however, are one of those necessary bands. I've not had fewer than three of their albums on my iPod for as long as I can remember. Like Nick Drake, they create an entire world through their songs and sound, and one that touches me deeply. They've had a few line-up shuffles over the years, so in a sense this was just a version of The Clientele, a return to a trio format they haven't used since 2005. But this was in no way a pick up band - bassist James Hornsey and drummer Mark Keen have been on the ride with MacLean since at or near the beginning - and as soon as MacLean began finger-picking a shimmering melody and singing in his warm tenor, a new world was created as if by magic. When Hornsey's liquid bass entered, joined by the metronomic soft ticking of Keen's high-hat and snare, that world was complete. Their faces were studies in concentration and absorption and served to bring us more deeply into their universe.

MacLean has been busy these last few years with Amor De Dias, his wonderful Spanish/Brazilian-influenced collaboration with Lupe Núñez-Fernándz of Pipas, and his concentration on nylon-string classical guitar in that band has honed his playing to a fine point. He played complex arpeggios and figures with a casual flair, barely looking at his instrument. The one extended solo he played (in E.M.P.T.Y) had a barbed tone and a cogent structure that had the crowd cheering. The songs, mostly from Suburban Light, The Violet Hour (2003) and Strange Geometry (2005), sounded better than ever, even with the occasional shaky moment, as when MacLean's guitar became unplugged (twice!) during Since K Got Over Me. The song is such a fantastic confection of sorrows that the audience barely registered the glitch. I'm fairly certain the only later song was Here Comes The Phantom, which MacLean told us, was only added by special request. Much appreciation to whoever did so, as it is one of my favorites.

Almost 90 minutes went by as if in a dream, which made it easy to almost ignore some of the odd things going on in the audience, including the antics of a young woman more interested in pouting for portraits right in front of the stage than in communing with the music. When The Clientele left, they were quickly brought back by our applause for an encore. "How about a couple more from Suburban Light?" MacLean asked to rapturous applause. Other than that, MacLean had spoken rarely, except to say "thank you," and at one point mentioned that he wasn't saying much because he was so "overwhelmed" by our response - I think it was a special night for them as well.

If you're new to this band, sign on to my Spotify playlist, which compiles some of my favorite songs by them. They're one of the finest groups of the last 20 years and deserve a retrospective. But the story of The Clientele may not be over. They recently recorded a couple of new songs for Merge's 25th Anniversary subscription series which is a hopeful sign in itself. Perhaps that, coupled with the reception they received at The Bell House and the obvious chemistry shared by MacLean, Hornsey and Keen will lead to a new period of activity for them. I would welcome that and I think even those Suburban Light purists would agree.


  1. Thanks for making me want to go out and get these records.