The press pack that comes with the Clientele’s Strange Geometry includes an article in Gear magazine from 2001 that quotes band leader Alasdair Maclean as saying about Belle & Sebastian, “I don’t understand what’s good about them. They’re okay. I just think we’re better. And it’s not even an arrogant claim, really. It’s like saying we’re better than a Micky Dolenz album.”
At first this read like sour grapes from a band that, while good and critically acclaimed, doesn’t sell many records when compared to relative indie heavyweights like Belle & Sebastian. But I happened to read that quote at the same time I was making my way through Belle & Sebastian’s discography, spurred by a reading of the bio book Just a Modern Rock Story, and I find I must agree: The Clientele is the better band. While Belle & Sebastian at its best is easily the Clientele’s equal, that band is not always at its best. The Clientele, meanwhile, is consistently good, its breathy retro-pop always on target, always well produced and always just the thing for when you’re in the mood.
Thing is, that mood doesn’t strike often, which is why, despite the fact that the Clientele is better, I — and given their relative sales, many others — am much more inclined to actually listen to Belle & Sebastian. The sense of playful fun and mischief of the latter fits the bill much more often than the moody, orchestrated perfection of the former. It’s the same reason why so many CD reviews of critically acclaimed discs include the phrase “in an alternate universe, these guys would be huge”. That alternate universe is a place where people are always in the right mood for the best music, really think about music and listen rather than hear.
That said, the new Clientele disc is awfully good, besting everything in Belle & Sebastian’s catalog on an album-by-album basis save for The Boy With the Arab Strap and Dear Catastrophe Waitress, a disc where that band’s reach and grasp aligned wonderfully.
Strange Geometry succeeds for a similar reason. While all three of the band’s long-players (including the singles collection Suburban Light and its official debut long player, 2003’s The Violet Hour) are wonderful, this new disc shows the band more confidently playing to its strengths. On first blush, it seems as if the band’s sound has remained consistent over time. However, a back-to-back listen to these three discs reveals an increasing sophistication. Where those early singles got by largely on a strong hook or two coupled with the band’s echo-laden music and Maclean’s breathy vocals, this new disc showcases deft arrangements that complement and enhance those fragile melodies.
This clearly feels like a concept record about a relationship, from the opening “Since K Got Over Me” through to the closing “Six of Spades”. Lyrically, Maclean deals with relationships dissolving, the passage of time and the way the first, leavened by the second, makes the world around you seem to shift and change.
The second track, “(I Can’t Seem To) Make You Mine” is one of the stand-outs here. Rather than offer the teen-aged tale of hurt and sexual frustration that one expects from such a title — which is not a cover of the Sky Saxon garage-era classic with a similar name, but rather, an original – the Clientele offers a tune heavy with ennui. This isn’t the usual litany of roadblocks to love or a lament about spurned affections. One imagines that Maclean simply can’t be bothered to put forth the effort to woo his love; heck, he can hardly muster the breath to get the words out.
“E.MP.T.Y.” is the most ambitious song on the disc, and the one that pushes the boundaries of what could be considered the band’s signature sound the most. It begins as a lilting pop tune, which, by the time it gets to the chorus, becomes a near-sing along. “Respect” it ain’t; you’ll never hear Maclean exhorting a lover to “sock it to me”. Still, the band does just that, albeit with guitars, on the bridge. Things go a bit haywire for a few moments, as a relative cacophony of guitar is unleashed, and it’s a nice flexing of dynamic muscles from a band that usually has its amps set on “subtle” more than “stun”.
Despite the relative quiet of its work, however, the band’s sound is increasingly big, belying the fact that it is a trio. It makes up for that setup by augmenting its guitar-bass-drums format with piano, organ, bouzouki and other elements. A string quartet fleshes out several of the songs as well, continuing the evolution of texture and arrangement that makes this a more satisfying disc than its predecessors.
The only real stumbling block here is “Losing Haringey”, a spoken, hard-to-follow narrative over a quiet guitar figure and occasional backing vocals. It’s interesting to hear once, but, even buried at the end of the disc, it interrupts the flow too much to warrant repeat spins.
That’s a shame, because the disc’s closer, “Six of Spades”, is the perfect ending, harkening back both musically and lyrically to the opener. Both allude to the album title, with the opening track referring to “every night a strange geometry, since K got over me”, and the ending tune nicely capping the disc and the overarching narrative: “The mirage & the echo of the life we live gently leaving me, break the fever, square the lines, strange geometry.”