Is there a more British name than Alasdair? Well, apart from all those jokey old names like Cecil or Basil or Eugene, that is. As such, it’s pretty much perfect for the Clientele’s lead singer, Alasdair MacLean. The band has crafted a reverb-soaked, backwards-looking pop sound that still manages to sound unique—little period pieces of songs, executed in a flawless analog whisper. If there’s anything modern in these songs, it’s a subtle sense of mystery – the way instrumental fuzz blossoms out of a haunted guitar wail, or the extended coda of a sweet song that makes you question the surface emotion of the whole thing.
The group’s third album, God Save the Clientele, isn’t so much a divergence as an evolution, and a brightening. With the addition of new bandmember Mel Draisey on piano, violin and vocals, and with string arrangements from Louis Phillipe, the band takes on a slightly fuller ‘70s pop sound—without reaching too far. The band’s got guest musicians from Wilco, Lambchop, and Pipas to contribute, too. But from the Clientele, you would never expect some huge statement, and God Save the Clientele doesn’t give that to us, and would never be that obvious.
And yes, it’s clear Lennon and McCartney’s benevolent gaze is all over the album; it comes with the territory. The Clientele doesn’t mind, and neither should we: the consonant major tonicities and orchestral interludes still sing to us with the same sweet voice. The album comes out of the gate strong (and positive) with “Here Comes the Phantom”, a sweet, tweed-jackets-tea-and-scones type track. It’s all lovely and totally pleasant, and even reserved, as if the swung rhythms are straining to be straight, to be classical even. And maybe this is a reason why the band has been relatively passed over back home, this complete Britishness. But because it’s never forced or put-on, it’s winsome and never tiresome.
So these tunes smack of familiarity, or take unexpected turns that still seem somehow expected. “Bookshop Cassanova” is one of the most upbeat cuts, and one that’s made its way around the internet a bit. But it’s not really indicative of the rest of the album, with its more prominent string arrangement and guitars with even a hint of bite. More characteristic is “Isn’t Life Strange”: sweet and melancholy resonance. You’ll bet you’ve heard the song before, some forgotten summer melody from childhood. “From Brighton Beach to Santa Monica”‘s the same ... it triggers some deep memory, but somehow at the same time is characteristically Clientele.
The disc isn’t perfect. The middle section sags, with a series of songs that blend together—same vocal range, similar tonalities and instrumental arrangements—and you wish for the band to fully let itself give in to the music, if the members really are so joyful. And one other strange thing is that a number of songs (towards the album’s end—and in fact the last song, too) end with “good night”. The sleepy salutation seems a bit premature ... a repetition without obvious purpose.
But in the end, we still like the Clientele; rather, we find it impossible not to like them. Because even when the songs run together, the blur’s pleasant and comforting. And because MacLean, despite his mellifluous voice, meditates on subjects we can relate to (worrying about a date with a girl, marveling at the quickness of time) in a way that comforts rather than alienates. The Clientele are carving out a comfortable niche. And if God Save the Clientele is no great revelation, it’s no disservice either. I’d guess the band will continue to draw in fans for some years to come.