The Clientele: Suburban Light

The Clientele
Suburban Light
Merge Records

 

FORGIVE ME A moment of awful coinage, if you will, but the Clientele inspire in me the urge to play the taxonomist, perhaps because their songs are so naggingly familiar. That, plus the usual genre assignments I've tried throwing at this London threesome all fail to stick. "Twee-pop" doesn't do the trick, since the Clientele's melodic tunes are rather more sleazy than Belle and Sebastian's. Neither is "indie rock" an adequate pigeonhole, even though Suburban Light, a full-length collection of the band's singles, has found American distribution through Merge Records, one of the birthplaces of the indie scene.

No, the Clientele invoke a genre all their own, one that I'd like to take this opportunity to christen "simulacrum pop." Yeah, I told you it was going to be awful, and I suppose Jean Baudrillard never intended his pomo academic terminology to be used as rock-review fodder--though he probably wouldn't mind. At least it's accurate. After all, Suburban Light comes off as a wistful stroll through all the classic Sixties pop moments you'd like to have taped off the radio but never quite got around to doing.

This classification may sound like a dig--"derivative" being a term of scorn--but it isn't here: The Clientele's copy of a copy is so blurred that it takes on a unique composite character, much in the same way that Gerhard Richter's hazy paintings of photographs find in the re-reproduction a new aesthetic of beauty. Reverential rather than outright referential, songs like "An Hour Before the Light" shimmer with the kind of glorious Carnaby Street melodies that recall "Lazy Summer Afternoon"-era Kinks. At the same time, the Clientele inject their own distinctly languid sadness, rescuing the song from seeming like simple homage. The opening of "Rain" similarly evokes the ghost of the Byrds' classic "Turn! Turn! Turn!" before moving to substitute the original's biblical hippyisms with a downbeat ode to unrequited love, as singer Alasdair Maclean despairs, "I want you so bad in my heart."

In fact, melancholy is perhaps what the Clientele do best, which is a good thing since it saturates the album. "We Could Walk Together" rides on guitars that chime with a gentle malaise worthy of George Harrison, while on "Reflections After Jane" Maclean's sighed vocals drip with regret. This serotonin lull would, of course, be oppressive, if the melancholy weren't as masterfully subdued as it is here. Such artful control is what distinguishes the Clientele from the legion of Sixties copyists stretching from the High Llamas to the Lilys, and it's ultimately what renders "Suburban Light" the perfect pop simulacrum--proof that a copy of a copy of a copy is sometimes just as winsome as the real thing.

 
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