Malleable, aesthetically pleasing synth-pop outfit get better as they get less human.
Whatever you think of their music, you’ve got to admit that Client have a great aesthetic. The uniforms, the pseudonyms, the album art, the videos, the rhetoric -- equal parts secret agent, service agency, and sex-as-a-weapon terrorist -- Clients A and B have clearly got the best bits of this whole being-a-band thing down cold. If that band remains an inconsistent act, one that at best is a minor pleasure, it’s hard to begrudge them it -- so much work has gone into everything else that the good songs they have produced are minor miracles.
And although the band make easy bait for grouchy critics, Command actually marks the third distinct success in Client’s career. Their first work, the pre-debut demos a friend convinced me to download from their website, were beautifully murky and stark, the early versions of songs like “Client” and “Pills” sounding like a distaff Cabaret Voltaire for the new millennium. The best songs on 2004’s City, on the other hand, were positively warm and openhearted by comparison -- “Don’t Call Me Baby” and “One Day at a Time” were great songs, but while the instrumentation and visuals were roughly the same, otherwise they might as well have been by a different band.
City’s strength was in that old perennial, songwriting, but while its highlights were entirely worthwhile, losing that coldness and misanthropy threatened to render the band just another electro-pop outfit. Command thankfully sees Client staking out territory somewhere in between the two sides, with a more brutally buzzy sound but with the more outgoing songwriting the band have grown more comfortable with.
They are still, occasionally, pretty risible; within the first two songs you get subjected to both a chanted mantra of “junkie love” and the refrain “fucked-up music sounds so fresh” (Client are the rare synth-pop act that manage to feel atavistically rockist on a regular basis), and in fact, aside from the darkly murmuring “Don’t Run Away”, the first half of Command is passable instead of striking.
But once the covertly balladic “Ghosts” is launched, the rest of Command is a sleekly imperious treat -- Client B’s vocals are still the centre of the songs, but they withdraw enough that the groove is paramount (as it probably should be). “Satisfaction”, “Son of a Gun”, and “Blackheart” are the least human Client has sounded in years and it suits them to a T. When Client B lets her voice soar on a song like “Lullaby” or the single “Can You Feel”, it’s good, but her clipped, icy phrasing on “Son of a Gun” works much better with the early-Human League-meets-Ladytron atmospherics they traffic in here.
The result is an uneasy if compelling gap between sides -- the poppy, relatively open one, and the dark, relentless one. Most listeners are likely to prefer one side or the other heavily enough that Command will be a bit underwhelming, and honestly, at this point the band could muster up a hell of a best-of but still haven’t made the album their better songs suggest they’re capable of. But in a world filled with groups whose idea of b(r)and identity is posing for pictures together, it’s easy to forgive a lack of perfection from an act like Client.