As far as most contemporary pop bands go, the Clientele have been consistently great. Take any album of theirs, select any track at random, and you’ll likely wind up listening to a miniature masterpiece of dreamy London-based indie pop with Alasdair MacLean’s gently whispering sweet nothings into your ear. So it’s odd that Unreal and Alone, the first and so far only compilation of the Clientele, is so brief. With vinyl’s appeal back on the rise again, Unreal & Alone was made with wax on the mind. 11 songs, 44 minutes, this best-of touches on the band’s five full-length albums along with “On a Summer Trail”, a standalone single from 2014 (the press release somehow gets away with calling it a “new song”). The Clientele’s numerous EPs are ignored completely, as are any rare nuggets that could have baited the obsessives. One can already predict cries of, “Why didn’t they include [insert your favorite song that wasn’t included]?!” But before you complain too loudly, just be aware that the deluxe version of Unreal & Alone come with a special download of the “lost” Clientele album The Sound of Young Basingstoke. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that it pales in comparison to the material you’re already familiar with. Such is life.
Unreal and Alone runs chronologically: no artsy skipping-around bull for this best-of. “Reflections After Jane” and “We Could Walk Together” represent their debut Suburban Light, an understated piece of bliss that made crestfallen fans of Britpop take notice in 2000. The Violet Hour appeared three years later to assure everyone that the Clientele were no fluke, though only “Missing” makes the cut here. Side one finishes up with three songs from the highly-praised Strange Geometry—the charmingly chugging “Since K Got Over Me”, “(I Can’t Seem to) Make You Mine” (not a Seeds cover), and the heavily-impressionistic “Losing Haringey”. When MacLean speaks of “the feeling of 1982-ness” during his stream-of-consciousness miserabalism, you’re not sure what he’s saying but you know what he means.
The second half begins with two tracks plucked from the Kinksianly-titled God Save the Clientele. “Bookshop Casanova” is an obvious choice since it embodies the band’s ability to place gentle pop on top of a snappy tune. “The Queen of Seville”, meanwhile, seems to speak to my five-year-old for the latter reason alone. Bonfires onthe Heath, The Clientele’s last full-length album, glows with the easy-going “Never Anyone But You” and the atmosphere-heavy “Harvest Time”. Since the album dropped in late 2009, fans have been speculating as to whether or not the band is still active. To shut us all up, I suppose, the Clientele have tossed us a few singles to tide us over until they can finally make up their mind. One of these singles is “On a Summer Trail”, a piece of I-can-make-you-feel-good-in-four-minutes that is as autumnal and perfect as any given moment from their past.
For The Sound of Young Basingstoke, the press release says that these ten songs were recorded by “an early incarnation of the band.” I can tell you one thing, that’s definitely Alasdair MacLean singing here. The recording quality is clear but not quite up to the professional recording standards you are used to hearing the Clientele use today. All of the band’s key components are in place: MacLean’s hushed voice, delicate guitar arrangements, and a healthy dose of reverb. The songs themselves are not bad, but the group had yet to figure out how to make these key components work in their favor thereby saving this 32-minute from sounding too same-y.
But The Sound of Young Basingstoke isn’t meant to lure in prospective Clientele fans, it’s for the historians of English pop. If someone ever started a conversation by saying “I don’t know what the big deal is with these guys, why do so many people love them?”, that’s when you impress them with your lean vinyl copy of Unreal and Alone: Best of the Clientele. It’s a little short in the tooth, but a little always went a long way with this band.