The Violet Hour

It's very easy for a London-based Clientele fan to think of and claim the group as belonging to London. There are the reference to parts of the capital that pepper both Suburban light and The violet hour, the numerous chances to see them in the variety of halls, pubs, theatres and dives which dot central London, and now the images of the east of the city in the video of 'House on fire': a black and white London of fissures and crevices, tears in the fabric, decaying rail yards, deserted streets, and alleyways giving glimpses of new buildings going up in the City. But I would like to have my cake and eat it by being able to hear them without any personal experience of London, only an imagined, far-off idea of the place drawn from music, film, fiction, general knowledge: a Dickensian Wonderland shot through with barbs of electric guitar and red buses. And perhaps The violet hour would serve to reshape that vision, and make me itch to quit New York, Melbourne or Bordeaux for the Smoke. Alternatively, overlooking the concrete references or mapping them onto another city's equivalent, I might find myself thinking that The violet hour happily or lamentingly soundtracks the sights and sounds of San Francisco, Dunedin or Valencia (the bells that sound to mark the transition from 'Voices in the mall' to 'When you and I were young' and later from 'Prelude' to 'Lamplight' have more of the air of the Mediterranean than of North London). But as much as London, and more than the art pop of the West Coast which partly inspires it, the Clientele's music also evokes the Home Counties: the end of the suburbs and the beginning of the English countryside, a landscape veined with stop-start commuter trains into London and the rarely disturbed waters of canals, where summer sunsets silhouette clutches of baking semis.

Recorded in a Finsbury Park version of the Black Ark with their very own Lee 'Scratch' Perry, 'Steady' Mike Jones, The violet hour refines the Clientele's particular take on the aural possibilities of guitar, bass and drums. Like obsessive painters, they're again trying to capture sunlight, moonlight, the electric glow of an interior, gas fire domesticity. There is guitar of a virtuosity to match that of Felt's Maurice Deebank, and of a distinctiveness approaching the wiry Rickenbacker crackle of the Byrds. The voice is distinctly English, despite its occasional Dylanesque inflections, and other-worldly, but not given to speaking in tongues. Magic powders of the past have also been added - a sprinkling of the psychedelic, a dusting of dubbiness, so that when listening to The violet hour, time is held suspended, and occasionally even goes backwards. The influences never dominate - you catch fleeting glimpses of them before they intermingle and twist the sound away from 2003 and into the twilight zone of timelessness. The melodies and songs manage to feel both immediate and somehow beyond reach, like ghosts. It's quite a trick, this, to offer something that is at once present and just out of reach. It takes time to get to know The violet hour. You can't learn everything about it on first listen.

Pop music is about what happens moment to moment as much as it is about whole songs or albums. An ordinary song may contain a moment of sonic beauty, perfection, or surprise, deliberately delivered or accidentally conjured. If a great song contains great moments, well, there's no stopping it. Take Love's 'Your mind and we belong together' (amazingly released only as a B side). Two minutes in, a typical Love song - Arthur Lee trilling and the bass bouncing a little flatly along - breaks down into the same struck guitar chord, moves into a more recognisable bridge, and reverts to the staccato guitar effect. Then, at 2 minutes 40 seconds, there's a buzz, a signal-like sound - the released catch of an electric door perhaps - and all hell breaks loose, or at least, the kind of guitar solo that just about retains its cool and doesn't necessitate an excess of gurning from its player.

The Clientele also write songs which pursue unusual paths. Were you to plot them on a graph, they would more often resemble something an economist might draw to illustrate boom and bust than waves or parabolas. They are keen conveyors of mood as well, and mood is about sound, so along the way there are many of those great moments. The best occurs towards the end of 'The house always wins' - and now that I'm about to describe it, I realise that it's a bit like giving away which character dies at the end of the latest Harry Potter, or revealing the football scores before the highlights are shown, so look away now if you want to discover this for yourself... At approx. 7:13 a crescendo of electric fuzz towards which the song has consistently been building suddenly peaks and drops away, returning to the song's measured and gentle introductory bars. It's spine-tingling; and even more so live. Other songs which give you an idea of what the Clientele can do moment to moment in a live setting are 'Porcelain' and 'Lamplight', the former with its thrumming jags of bass and guitar, and the latter when its delicacy eventually gives way to an explosion of the kind of bell-pure plucking that decorates all of the group's songs.

The core of The violet hour is guitar music bred on guitar music; other influences are nominal, more of approach than surfacing in the sound. 'Jamaican rum rhumba' is an exquisite miniature, blood relative to 'Christopher' on the Claim's Boomy Tella, a breeze of an instrumental, perfect and lean, while Mark offers up a 'Prelude' which is more like the Felt of 'Candles in a church' and 'Ferdinand Magellan' in its careful handling than it is a homage to Chopin or Satie.

Meteorologists will note that only the odd shower is forecast on this Clientele record. However, there are the autumnal intimations of the title track, its mood echoing another great song of cold, distance, loss, and ethereality, the Chills' 'Pink frost', and also the heat haze of 'House on fire', which isn't, you'll be relieved to hear, a cover of the Dennis Bovell-produced Boomtown Rats single of 1982. But it is dub in feel, with James' laid-back bass making a melodic foray through the unmown grass of a London open space - the Heath, the Common, or perhaps Kensington Gardens north of the Albert Memorial - in search of 'the door to summer', very possibly the same door the Monkees faded through on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. back in 1967.

Despite their many previous recordings, The violet hour is actually the Clientele's first album proper, so it seems fair enough that it should encapsulate a sound with which fans have become familiar. Next I would like them to surprise us, if not with a jolt, then with a shift in direction. But for now here is the first unified set of Clientele recordings in which to immerse yourself. Wherever in the world you are.

© 2003 Daniel Williams