“The Clientele—they sound like Belle & Sebastian, right?” The Clientele/Belle & Sebastian comparisons bother me to no end, not only because I think the two bands sound so different from each other, but also because it is indicative of the dangers of categorization. Although categorizing music greatly simplifies everyone’s life (and everyone does it, including me), it also glosses over the actual music that the band is trying to get across to an audience. Think of it as a Cliffs Notes approach to music. And like your high-school Lit teacher hopefully taught you, Cliffs Notes can never substitute for the real thing. So as I watched the Clientele perform on Thursday night to an enthusiastic crowd at the Bowery Ballroom, I kept a running list in my head, just in case I wanted to write a future volume of Indiepop for Dummies:
Belle & Sebastian: songs about boys, bicycles, girls, school, U.S. label - Matador, handclaps, lots of musicians, Hammerstein Ballroom
11 Sep 2003: Bowery Ballroom New York
The Clientele: songs about rain, suburbs, Jane, summer, mornings, U.S. label - Merge, reverb, not so many musicians, Bowery Ballroom
Traits shared by both bands: moments of lyrical awkwardness, British, earnest, Nick Drake, Felt, corduroy, and probably kittens
Based on my wholly objective, impartial list, I couldn’t really see any connection. If I had to create a chapter in my book that covered the two bands, I’m not sure what I would title it. Kitten Clash? Corduroy Pop? Earnest, Lyrically Awkward, British Bands (this actually might be feasible, but it would have to be a whole volume by itself)? I think the line in the sand needs to be drawn, starting now.
To begin with, the Clientele’s musicianship is remarkable. It was amazing how assured they were, how they managed to evoke so much with only three musicians on stage. I can only imagine that Galaxie 500 must have cast a similar spell on their audience way back when. Alasdair MacLean is a compelling guitarist; finger-picking through chiming, intricate lines and ringing open strings, he channels the tasteful, spare guitar work of Richard Thompson and the narcotic dreaminess of Lawrence Hayward from Felt. The rest of the band is equally adept; weaving together a taut, fluid, rhythmic platform for MacLean to take off from. If you were in their air-band, you would have difficulty choosing which air-instrument to air-play.
I’ve seen Belle & Sebastian a few times, and although their performances do convey a certain presence, I can’t really recall anything about their musicianship worth noting, certainly nothing that would inspire a bout of air-guitar.
In their approach towards songwriting and recording, the Clientele’s songs are like delicate set pieces in miniature, intricately layered and suggestive of a world rooted in but several shades removed from our own (their new release, The Violet Hour, attempts to do this across the length of an entire album, and succeeds, for the most part). The band’s reverb-laden production lends an otherworldliness that often sends their aural daydreams into extreme soft focus. Despite the oft-cited criticisms lobbed towards them (retro aesthetic cul-de-sac, rehashed lyrical subject matter), it’s hard to imagine anyone refuting the sophistication and leisurely beauty of the music. Can too much beauty be a bad thing? Certainly, and the Clientele’s live set did occasionally wander into a muddled glow of gorgeous chord-change emptiness, but more often than not the music was pristine and surprisingly sturdy, conjuring images of being escorted past Central Park and staring out the window towards the jeweled mansions on Fifth Avenue in slow motion (and in the rain, of course).
Belle & Sebastian’s music, while frequently well-crafted, accomplished, and witty, often has the heavy-handed feel of a school assembly performance when heard live.
I know this should be a review of the Clientele, not a compare and contrast piece with Belle & Sebastian. I don’t have anything against Belle & Sebastian, honest. But the next time you’re having a conversation with someone about the Clientele, wouldn’t it be nice to hear, “The Clientele, they don’t really sound like anyone else, do they?”