On album number three, the ultra-chic Brit synthpop girls have a new Client in tow. They're still not taking your phone calls.
Where Eurotrash meets electroclash, where the digital age meets analog synthesizers, where fast fashion meets slow-burning irony -- that's where Client reside.
From its beginning in 2002, the idea of Client was always at least as important and appealing as the music itself. The British girl-girl duo were easy on the eyes and almost always appeared wearing matching suits. Their sexuality was portrayed as aloof, ambiguous, yet needy. In official press releases they were referenced only as "Client A" and "Client B". The identity of their manager and label boss "Client F", however, was no secret: Andy Fletcher from Depeche Mode. Their immaculately-produced synth pop was '80s throwback that highlighted only the cold calculation and irony of that era, cut as sharply as those suits. Though the music, especially the first few singles, wasn't bad at all, it was really just one part of the assemblage.
With three albums in five years Client are, as their image might imply, nothing if not consistent. The look, the music -- even the logo is the same. It comes as a shock to learn that the band parted ways with Fletcher and his label, Toast Hawaii, in 2006. The split was amicable; it's tough to run a label on Depeche Mode's tour schedule. The Clients' identities are now common knowledge: keyboardist Kate Holmes, formerly of Frazier Chorus, and ex-Dubstar singer Sarah Blackwood. For album number three, Heartland, "Client E" has been added. She is ex-model Emily Mann/Strange, who plays Peter Hook-inspired bass about as well as you'd imagine an ex-model would. Yet, perhaps by design, these moves seem more like tweaks or adjustments than real changes. So do any differences between Heartland and its two predecessors.
Two names that anyone familiar with '80s and '90s alt-pop will recognize but won't have heard for a while show up in the producing credits: Youth takes the helm for a handful of tracks and Stephen Hague mans the boards for one. But the slicing, dicing, squishing analog synths and crisp, danceable rhythms remain at the forefront. Youth adds an extra element of drama and grandiosity to songs like the Eurodisco "Drive" and glam stomper "Lights Go Out". He also enlists ex-Verve/current Damon Albarn cohort Simon Tong to play on the guitar-heavy, adrenaline-rush-inducing cover of Adam Ant's "Xerox Machine". You could argue it's fitting that the one track that stretches Client musically is the one they didn't write.
The Hague-produced "Someone to Hurt" sounds like a Pet Shop Boys b-side, not necessarily a bad thing except, like too many of the songs on Heartland, it goes on for too long without doing much new. Of the several tracks which the band co-produced with Joe Wilson, the mournful, downbeat title track is a highlight, while instrumental "Köln" is notable for trying on a hip-hop rhythm. Some barely-there backing vocals from Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess aren't enough to save the insufferably repetitive "Where's the Rock and Roll Gone".
Heartland has somewhat accurately been described as more lyrically downcast than Client's previous albums. Still, Blackwood's sassy/vulnerable lyrics are wearing thin from all the clichés and stock images: "Your dirty little secret", "You look good on your knees", "The girl you love to hate". "I'm no angel / I've seen it all before", she sings on "Get Your Man", and you've heard it all before. Such cold, clinical music begs for a warm voice to offset it and create some dynamics, yet Blackwood delivers every line like she's memorizing it for a future performance. Her soft, ultra English cooing isn't unpleasant and is capable of genuine emotion, as evidenced by the album's best track, the urgent "It's Not Over", on which she briefly steps outside the construct. Taken with "Xerox Machine" and the title track, it's a blueprint for a more substantial Client creation.
So far, Heartland has failed to provide the band the commercial breakthrough that names like Youth and Hague suggest they're after (not surprisingly, they're fairly big in Germany). This is all the more reason for the ladies to make a bold move on album number four, drop some of the pretense before it becomes self-parody.
Heartland sounds sleek, cool, and fashionable coming through the speakers -- but you won't remember much an hour later. As ever, you get the impression this is what would happen had the two women from the Human League split off and formed a band, only not as much fun.