Talk about what a change of scenery can do: For Alasdair MacLean, a summery hiatus with an open-ended return ticket from his main gig in the Clientele has given him the opportunity to broaden his horizons with Amor de Días, his collaboration with Lupe Núñez-Hernández of twee-poppers Pipas. On the duo’s first album together, Street of the Love of Days, MacLean has shed his wintry cardigan-rock for something brighter and lighter, crafting jazz-inflected indie-pop that conjures up mental images of warmer vibes and tropical climes. So it’s not like anyone really needs to tell you that the record was written in Spain and England by the pair, since there’s a breezy Mediterranean flair that breathes some new life into what had become a reliably winning, but well-worn formula MacLean had been finetuning and futzing with in the Clientele for over a decade.
As with MacLean’s earlier work, though, Amor de Días is all about creating atmosphere, even if the mood and setting are completely different on the new project. Just compare Amor de Días’ take on “Harvest Time” to the Clientele’s version: The former is light and sparse, evoking the golden light of the lengthening days between spring and summer, in contrast to the reverb-y haze of the latter, which conveys a sense of nostalgia for a hey-day that has since passed. Indeed, the new effort only confirms MacLean’s proficiency as a songwriter who can create an impressionistic, immersive environments, at the same time he reveals a versatility and range that went under the radar with the Clientele’s taken-for-granted psychedelic chamber-pop. Coming off refreshed and reinvigorated, albeit in its own understated way, MacLean’s approach here has a crispness and liveliness to it that was lost a bit in the Clientele’s layered aesthetic. On the title track, for example, MacLean builds something rich and resonant from the interplay of brisk acoustic guitar and a spry horn arrangement, while the yearning love song “House of Flint” is at once easygoing and painstakingly nuanced.
Perhaps as big a factor for MacLean’s reinvention as the new working environment is his partnership with another solid songwriter like Núñez-Hernández, who pushes him out of his familiar comfort zone to create a new one. If anything, Núñez-Hernández comes up with some of the project’s most memorable moments, like on the organic blues of “Birds”, which recalls the after-hours vibe of the xx gone unplugged, and the quiet charmer “Wandering”, with its metronomic beat and twangy strings. But the best moments on Street of the Love of Days occur when the principals share vocal duties and show how natural the give-and-take between them is. Accompanied by gossamer music box-y instrumentation, Núñez-Hernández takes the lead on “Dream (Dead Hands)” with her high, fragile voice, as MacLean earnestly tries to keep up the pace, recalling those early Belle and Sebastian tracks on which Isobel Campbell took her star turn. “I See Your Face” reverses the boy-girl dynamic as MacLean’s shy entreaties are traced by Núñez-Hernández’s, all set to shimmery, strummy melodies that echo the trademark sound of Spain’s best-known indie label, Elefant Records, and its flagship act Le Mans.
It’s just that not all of Street of the Love of Days is as well-conceived and fully-fleshed out as these collaborative pieces are, with too many tracks either sounding too slight or ending up as incomplete compositions. The opener “Foxes”—which is also unnecessarily reprised at the end as well—sets that tone right at the beginning, flitting and floating pleasantly enough, though the acoustic riffing never really goes anywhere. And the album has more than its fair share of ditties that clock in under two minutes and end before they get started, the equivalent of doodles in the margins of a notebook that need more time and space to flourish and develop. Like the Clientele, Amor de Días can sometimes be too consistent in its tone, needing some more moments that stand out and shake up pretty songs that can fade into the background.
So maybe not everything has come together for MacLean and Núñez-Hernández on their first outing together, but Amor de Días has the makings of something much more than a side-project or a fling. Here’s hoping that Street of the Love of Days is the beginning of a new career path for the duo, rather than just a pleasant diversion or a release-valve detour. Because what MacLean sings on “House of Flint” rings true about Amor de Días: “Something’s really going on / Something’s happening here.”