[17 September 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It seemed for a while that last year’s Bonfires on the Heath would be the final time anyone heard from the Clientele, an English band with a penchant for lush, lazy psychedelic pop that recalls such ‘60s acts as the Zombies and the Association. In a May 2009 interview with Pitchfork, lead singer Alasdair MacLean said this of Bonfires on the Heath: “I think it’d close the chapter quite well. If you don’t have any more ideas you should just go away, I guess.” In the end, the Clientele obviously had more ideas that they wanted to commit to tape, as they have, just less than a year later, issued a new eight-song, nearly 27-minute-long mini-album called Minotaur.
You might have a hard time hunting down Minotaur in record stores, as it has been issued in a limited edition of only 1,000 copies on compact disc. However, the album is available online from the Merge Records website (as well as in MP3 form from such usual suspects as Amazon and iTunes), and obtaining this mini-album on the web might be the route to go, because you can cherry pick which songs you’d like to get. The first four songs come highly recommended, but after that the EP lapses into material that only the most diehard fans who must have everything by this band will want to buy.
The Clientele is arguably indie rock’s most literate band, taking their inspiration from everything from the poems of T.S. Eliot and surrealist poetry to folk tales. (Having a song titled “Bookshop Casanova” in their back catalogue only heightens their literary acumen.) MacLean is known for his breathless trademark singing, an effect that is bolstered by plugging his microphone into a guitar amplifier. Plus, the rainy, autumnal London-esque sound that the band conjures is apt to be best appreciated in a haze of laudanum or absinthe—or, for those who would prefer something less opiate or alcoholic, a warm cup of hot chocolate. It’s an acquired taste to be sure, but the band has a distinct trademark sound that sort of blends in together on their records to create an LP’s worth of moody melancholic songs, despite recent forays into pedal steel and slide guitar country rock on 2007’s God Save the Clientele and a brief flirtation with sunny ‘60s pop through “I Wonder Who We Are” on Bonfires on the Heath.
The front half of Minotaur harkens back to the Clientele’s reverb-heavy psychedelic pop signature sound, perfected on albums like 2003’s The Violet Hour and 2005’s Strange Geometry. However, there are a few nuances that differentiate these songs from falling backwards into the group’s old style. The lead-off track, “Minotaur”—which MacLean sings in the seemingly more British pronunciation minah-taur instead of the more standard minnow-taur—is augmented by swooping strings during its chorus, as well as what could be an acoustic guitar playing lovely arpeggios as though it were a harp. (This is appropriate, considering that the word “arpeggio” in Italian, “arpeggiare”, means “to play on a harp”. There goes the Clientele with their nods to literature in the meanings of words.) While “Minotaur” is a song written from the perspective of the fabled monster from Greek mythology, one waiting for the hero Theseus to slay it, MacLean seems to be referring perhaps to the group’s general lack of commercial success (the band is more popular in the US than its native Britain) in its opening lines: “I dreamed one night / That I was young / But life had passed me by”. It’s a startling song, one that doesn’t quite reach the heights of, say, “Since K Got Over Me”, but it is a beautiful tune on its own merits, and helps to elevate this collection beyond the standard flotsam and jetsam usually found on EPs.
The songs that immediately follow the title track are almost equally breathtaking. “Jerry” sees the Clientele giving a nod to Television’s “Marquee Moon” in that there’s a guitar break where a series of chords are played in ascending scale-like fashion. “As the World Rises and Falls” is a slinky, countrified song with pedal steel and slide guitar a la God Save the Clientele, with a piano tinkling its way through the chorus. “Paul Verlaine” is a somewhat sunny affair complete with a “dah-dah-dah” scat line and a xylophone (whose name is also taken from the Greek) that recalls the work of Belle and Sebastian, and cutely rhymes the word porcelain with Verlaine. The song references “Cyclops in the streets”, furthering the band’s flirtation with mythology on this short album. It is also worth noting that Paul Verlaine was a 19th century French poet, reinforcing the Clientele’s literary aspirations once more.
However, this EP somewhat falls apart after the peak of “Paul Verlaine”. The fifth song, “Strange Town”, is pleasant and is kind of a brighter inverse of “Minotaur” with its similarly harp-like guitar, but it lasts only one minute and 40 seconds long—too brief to make any kind of impact with its verse-chorus-verse. It literally just stops on a dime, making it seem like a barely-thought out throwaway. “No. 33”, which follows, is a similarly brief piano dirge that strangely recalls the Apples in Stereo’s musical interludes that pepper Her Wallpaper Reverie, and its presence here appears to be mere novel twaddle. Then there’s “The Green Man” , a more than five minute surrealist tone poem not unlike “Losing Haringey” from Strange Geometry. The problem is that the piece already seems rote by the Clientele’s standards—as noted, they’ve done this sort of thing before—and despite the inclusion of what an endearing vocal stumble, the piece doesn’t feel like an actual song, being backed up with some wintery wind sound effects and clanging noises. It’s hard to actually enjoy “The Green Man” as a result, and it just feels like a band spinning its wheels and going over some familiar territory. Finally, “Nothing Here Is What It Seems” nicks the melody from Simon and Garfunkle’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” to a point where the latter has great ammunition for launching a plagiarism suit, if they had the time and inclination.
Whether it is a last gasp from an unusually consistent band or merely a palate-clearing exercise pointing the way towards a perhaps more experimental direction to be found on a follow-up LP, Minotaur is buoyed by an excellent front half and a less stellar back end. Still, here’s hoping that there is more music to be heard from the Clientele, because, even with its missteps and filler, Minotaur is a worthy addition to the collection of anyone following this band. It would have been a stronger mini-album had it lopped off the detritus and made a more cohesive literary statement with just the first four songs, but the great thing about the advent of downloadable music is that the listener can essentially create their own version of a record. That would be the recommended path of following this Minotaur. If you do decide to take on the whole thing, just remember to carry a ball of yarn with you so that you don’t get lost navigating the final approach.