Almost three years ago, Clearlake distinguished themselves not as a group to watch, but as one that had already arrived. Cedars showed a leap forward from their debut album Lido, not only in terms of songwriting, but also in production. Frontman Jason Pegg had nailed the perfect way to get the most appropriate sound for his songs, making both their gloom and their resistance play off each other in textured atmospheres. His band came across as people who had been following not the UK pop tradition, but some parallel, more enclosed version of it. When last year’s EP, Wonder If the Snow Will Settle outdid expectations for a placeholder release and brightened the band’s sound, Clearlake further raised expectations for their follow-up.
They almost deliver. Amber shows ambition continuing to grow, but weirdness dissipating. With the group still willing to experiment, it doesn’t sound like a nod to the mainstream, but like a band with a bigger budget and more ideas and a loss of loss. The songs here are nearly all good, but they disappoint because they sound like tracks that 50 different bands could have made, rather than resulting from one idiosyncratic vision. If it’s a step back, it’s not a big one — perhaps it’s just a band crouching back ready to spring forward in the future.
Fortunately, Pegg’s studio work remains strong. While he’s sacrificed the aura of the last release, he’s improved his precision. The title track travels wide, opening with subdued vocals over steady strings. The wave-like percussion shifts between channels, heightening the tension of the track. On the chorus, Pegg adds a vocal harmony, and uses the strings to highlight the melody. “Amber” stays in the chamber, but shifts more toward the orchestra feel than the pop.
Unfortunately, the radical shift into “Good Clean Fun” reveals the album’s primary weak point. By focusing on the guitar part, Clearlake moves closer to sounding like any number of bands — apparently they’ve been listening to the radio lately. The guitar solos flick and stop oddly, which makes for the cut’s most interesting moment, but it’s nothing that artists like John Cale haven’t already been doing, and the way the track fades out suggests that Pegg didn’t really know where he was taking this one.
Of course, even sounding less like their midnight fog, Clearlake can set itself apart with fine execution. “Finally Free” runs from British invasion through Aerosmith, but the band’s tight groove
Even if the music misses the mark on occasion, Pegg’s lyrics remain strong, as on “You Can’t Have Me” turns a smart song on relationship power dynamics around by revealing the singer’s own fears. “Neon” really pushes the album into a new place when it throws several kinds of (artificial) light onto a single image, using the neon sign as a beacon of hope, a seduction flame, and a quiet plea. Clearlake further spins this track around by performing it the most raucously with the group’s biggest guitar riff and its only blues-rock harmonica part.
On “It’s Getting Light Outside” Pegg explores the feeling of passing a night in conversation or in silence with someone: “Before you know we’ll forget the time / And turn around and find we’ve talked all night / It’s getting late outside.” Amber is a remembrance or an anticipation of a night like that, but it isn’t enveloping enough to actually be that night, but it does have enough charm and poetry to make you recognize that one night you and a Clearlake album might see dawn appearing unexpectedly.