It’s Geometry Dad

Being a fan of the Clientele is not like being a devotee of the Stone Roses or an admirer of Massive Attack.  You never have to wait long for a new release in some shape or form, whether that’s a shared 7” or a short set of songs inspired by the paintings of de Chirico.  Even so, it was hard not to start anticipating Strange geometry from the moment of first hearing its title.  And even so, it’s an unexpected bonus to have a follow-up of sorts this hot on its heels.  A collection of songs recorded for the most part between 1992-96, It’s art dad is in some sense the equivalent of the Verlaines’ Juvenilia or Autechre’s Incunabula, though in fairness each of those albums shows a more thoroughly evolved sound than the Clientele were producing in their Hampshire loft.

I am a pushover for early and lost or forgotten recordings now found and restored.  I guess they appeal to the archivist in me, or the completist.  I confess I’ve had dreams of turning up previously unknown albums by favourite groups or extremely rare books by favourite authors.  Georges Perec wrote a perfect little story called ‘The winter journey’ which in part reflects a similar phenomenon of yearning.  In it a young man reads a book picked from a friend’s shelves in a house then destroyed in the war.  A remarkable work called The winter journey, it appears to be the direct source and inspiration for some of France’s greatest fin de siècle poets and writers.  So begins a lifetime search for another copy of the book and proof that its author actually existed.  Perec being Perec, it ends in a psychiatric hospital.  I consider myself duly warned.

When it - a record label’s metal detector signalling material beneath the ground, and their bothering to dig it up and dust it down - actually happens in what I assume are my waking hours, it’s quite an occasion.  Most recently it was impossible not to rush out and buy Domino's Orange Juice and Fire Engines recordings.  Equally eagerly sought were the pre-Postcard recordings of the Go-Betweens on 78 ’til 79: the lost album, whose rough gems show that Robert and Grant might have made a straighter pop album before the angular Send me a lullaby; the songs by the Hellfire Sermons which never formed the basis of the two or three LPs they could have made, but which finally appeared on Hymns: ancient and modern; the treasure trove of the Scott Walker box set In five easy pieces; the Action’s astonishing Rolled gold LP-that-never-was, surpassing their frequently compiled singles.  The great twice-lost Hurrah! demos.  You might say the whole of the Rev-ola and LTM catalogues respectively, but let’s mention the Chuck and Mary Perrin recordings in particular.  The group you know and love may or may not have arrived at itself, but there is enough of the search for a sound going on to render the ordinary recordings interesting and the better ones exciting.

The four piece Clientele of It’s art dad is instantly recognisable as a youthful version of the current trio.  The musical and lyrical preoccupations are tentative forays in the sound and mood that would click into artful place a year or two later; these are songs on the edge of turning into those gathered together on Suburban light.  With its ‘English meadows’, ‘Elm grove window’ broad-brushes the landscapes that would later be finely rendered.  The rain is soft at the window in ‘The night that changed our minds’.  Musically ‘When she’s tired of dancing’ has ‘I had to say this’ in its genes.  ‘The evening in your eyes’ is the grandfather of ‘Missing’ on The violet hour.  It would seem that you can take the boy out of Hampshire, but you can’t take Hampshire out of the boy, for compared with their later evocation of London, the early recordings show that Alasdair MacLean’s view of the world is stronger than the place he lives.  Or to turn it around, there’s not so much between the lived experience of the country and that of the city.  Each can in its own way give you a sense of splendid isolation or night-time solipsism.  Besides, they were obviously making daytrips up to the Smoke, as ‘St Paul’s beneath a sinking sky’ testifies.

Whichever Clientele père was on the end of the flippant reply, ‘but it’s art dad’, I hope he now understands that though it wasn’t quite realised, his son was well on the way to being right.  And I wonder - soon to embark on the reverse journey of London to Hampshire - whether my daughter will ever say something similar to me.

So, to reach Strange geometry, the Clientele have come further than we might have imagined.  A new album sets the previous one in context, so that this could almost be a review of all four Clientele long-players.  The subaqueous consonance of The violet hour reappraised against the daytime clarity and night-time luminescence of Strange geometry, and the pre-history of It’s art dad illuminating Suburban light from beneath, so to speak.  It becomes obvious that turning into a trio crystallized the Clientele’s sound, while The violet hour took them as far as they could go in terms of the intricacies that can be generated by the minimal and maximal interplay of guitar, bass and drums.

The strange geometry that the Clientele want to portray is suggested by the album’s cover art, ‘The viaduct’ by Belgian painter Paul Delvaux.  The painting shows the junction of two desolate streets at night, with a steam train running on raised track high above them.  The angular darkness is punctured by squares, arches and globes of light.  A deviant, impossible mirror in the foreground, which might be a station forecourt, renders the rest of the picture unreal.  The tone of the whole is mystery and absence.  It reminds me of a short story studied at school, the title and author long forgotten, but possibly of the science fiction genre.  It portrayed little two-seater police bubble cars sending intersecting triangles of yellow light from their headlamps as they pass.  Otherwise, the only light seen by the character walking in the street is the predominantly blue light emitted by television screens from behind uncurtained windows in unlit houses.  The character remains unsure as to whether anyone is inside watching their images.

The Clientele pick all manner of geometric forms from the quiet hum of the studio and the chaotic hum of the cosmos, from the simplicity of a triangle to the intricacy of an icosahedron.  Tangents touch and head away and acute angles open slowly from their points.  Where previous recordings left in the smudges and the fuzz, and let hesitant and delicate off-kilter songs veer further from a straight path, here (to misquote Paul Klee) ‘the ear follows the paths that have been laid down for it in the work’.  This is the sound of a trio totally in tune with itself, and this is the album you always knew that the Clientele could bring into being, or at least that someone could help them make.  Produced by Brian O’Shaughnessy with string arrangements by one time El recording artiste, Louis Philippe, Strange geometry is as free as Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express and as bewitching as The magical world of the Strands.  For all its bleak lyricism, it has a verdant, summery air compared to the wintry frostiness of The violet hour.  ‘Since K got over me’ is perhaps the linking piece, a ‘Jean’s not happening’ for the 21st century.  Despite its conclusion that ‘I don’t think I’ll be happy any more’, it’s almost an upbeat update on the song ‘The violet hour’ (‘So that summer came and went and I became cold’).  All the songs have that tempting, evasive quality about them that makes you want to keep coming back to listen afresh, to hear how all those ideas have settled down into a coherent whole.  Instrumentally rich even without strings, you still don’t know what’s round the corner of a new Clientele song.  The production is subtly exquisite, exquisitely subtle.  Alasdair’s voice has never sounded better, clean and clear and giving spirited flavour to his lyrical themes: patterns which shift and break as quickly as they formed, emptiness, worthlessness, silence, crowds, specifically summer crowds, specifically summer crowds in Europe; a sudden glimpse within them of a friend’s face which as suddenly vanishes.  The ghost of Ian Curtis is invoked on ‘Spirit’ as Alasdair reprises a phrase from ‘Disorder’.  There are echoes of the shades of others in their themes and sounds just as there were on first hearing them play live - the Dylanesque inflections in Alasdair’s singing, most evident here on ‘Geometry of lawns’.  And as with Felt, or Yo La Tengo, there is the quietly unfolding sense of vision and a gradual refining of sound across a panorama of recordings. 

That string arrangements can expose the ordinariness of a song and the obviousness of a tune beneath or above them was never going to be an issue with the Clientele.  Their introduction might have threatened the balance of their sound, but Louis Philippe almost always walks the line between colour and restraint.  You sense that the songwriter did not originally have strings in mind when they emerge within the revised version of ‘Impossible’, and here alone they sit uneasily alongside the three-piece sound of the pop song.  The other arrangements all work, adding an extra layer of luminosity to ‘Step into the light’ without dominating or sugar-coating the song, gliding like a plane through the air above the earthbound character singing ‘E.M.P.T.Y.’, and coiling like the ivy of the garden or the cemetery round the elegiac '(I Can't Seem To) Make You Mine'.

There are greater injustices to worry over than the Clientele’s lack of popularity in Britain but even an old and well-trained pessimist such as myself was surprised at Strange Geometry’s reception in this country.  Alasdair’s stab at an explanation for the lack of attention is that they might be perceived as ‘faintly jolly hockey sticks’.  They are so extremely British in these mid-Atlantic times that they do verge on the exotic. To a degree this must be why they appeal to parts of the rest of the world, but whether our critics shun the Clientele for their dread familiarity or their poise and intelligence, I don’t know.  On ‘My own face inside the trees’ Alasdair sings, ‘like the sea inside a shell / everything speaks to itself’.  Perhaps Strange geometry is just a shell on a shingle spit, perfect on close inspection but inconspicuous among tens of thousands of others, waiting for diligent beachcombers to come along, spot it and put it to their ear.

© 2005 Daniel Williams