Clearlake's second album, Cedars, gives us an opening chorus: "It's hard to believe / But now I can see / That you're almost the same as me". I'm not sure who they're singing to, but it isn't their Britpop peers, with whom they're compared despite not having that similar a sound. On this opening track, the guitar chugs like it should and the drums give a conventional sound, but something sets it apart. Jason Pegg's voice and the melody of his lyrics give us just a hint that we're in for something different with this record.
The second track shifts into 3/4 time and adds strings to the band's sound, and the lyrics let us know we're not dealing with the usual pop music. The song's titled "The Mind Is Evil" and it's full of lines that are witty but increasingly despairing. When Pegg sings "Somehow [my mind] knows what I'm thinking about", we might smirk at the singer's cleverness, but we could just as easily shudder at the despair of a man trying to hide from the source of his sins while trying to shift blame and escape his self. The strings drive this song and expand the mood with their nervy harmonic tension.
Clearlake keep trying, but they can't seem to get out of this depressive trap. In "Wonder If the Snow Will Settle", Pegg tells us, "The last thing you're expecting when you're looking for a window is to see it look so grey". Despite the overall bleakness of the lyrics, the band keeps struggling to find optimistic music. The beautiful melodies and moving textures seldom disappoint. The world is still grey, but the curtains are pulled back a bit.
This tension remains throughout the album, and even a glance at the song titles reveals this inner pull. "Can't Feel a Thing", "Keep Smiling", and "Treat Yourself with Kindness" (which proposes a rule as golden as a Ben Johnson Olympic medal) all sound like a disturbed individual trying to hold it together, to give in to irony, and to say "screw it" all at once. The music keeps poking and prodding at your head, to make you check to see if your mind really is evil. "Don't try to tell me you've never been cruel", they ask, but you don't have to answer. Keyboardist Sam Hewitt, bassist David Woodward, and percussionist James Butcher create a sound that's infectious -- not so much Smokey-Robinson-hook catchy, but Nosferatu-bite infectious.
In case the distemper doesn't take subtly, Clearlake invites you to "Come into the Darkness", but only after you've listened to the bizarre "I'd Like to Hurt You". This track effectively shows the conflict of the sadist who gives fair warning (and who enjoys creating personal anxiety). This maleficent desire is tempered by a need to mitigate, brought out in the lovely lyrics of "Trees in the City", where there's something left to hope.
If Cedars has an artistic failing, it's that the songs tend to blend together after "Almost the Same". It's a thin line between creating your own sound and writing the same song over and over. Although Clearlake come close to this line, they never quite cross it. The band sticks to the brooding guitars-drums-strings sound, but it varies tempos and instrumentation just enough to keep things interesting. "Keep Smiling" depends on a basic piano line more than the other tracks and employs traditional harmony in the vocals. The next track, "It's All Too Much", features far less music than in the other songs on Cedars. Clearlake do a great job increasing the tension here, letting the song simmer until the guitar finally breaks free, after which it takes over the vocalist's role as the song's centerpoint. These deviations allow the band to maintain a consistent sound throughout the album while keeping each track unique.
Jason Pegg has said, "We're constantly trying to find the exact mid-point between raw chaos and Tin Pan Alley". I don't know that Clearlake have actually achieved that goal (and if they do, I vote they change their name to the Sex Porters). The band's sound is carefully crafted; while it's experimental, it doesn't sound chaotic. The lyrics are clever in an enjoyable way and the band certainly prizes the art of songwriting, but there's not a Tin Pan attitude apparent on Cedars. Clearlake might not have hit the sound they were aiming for, but the imaginative risks they take pay off. As far as I'm concerned, it's almost the same.