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The Clientele, Songbyrd, Washington DC

The Clientele, Songbyrd, Washington DC
September 11, 2023 08:18PM
The Clientele
August 12, 2023
Songbyrd, Washington DC

For a career now nearly 3 decades long, Alasdair MacLean of British ensemble The Clientele has remained remarkably consistent if below the radar screens of most audiences. I first came across the band in 2006 with their masterfully melodic single “Since K Got Over Me,” from the album Strange Geometry. It was a gorgeous, albeit somber record, one entirely of a piece with the band’s material up to that point: extremely melodic, sung with lots of vocal reverb, and lyrically very British, with their allusions to dark autumn evenings and the gloom of suburbia and sleepy agricultural towns outside of London.

Despite, or perhaps, because, of the band’s extremely well-developed niche subject matter, The Clientele have apparently always been more popular in America than they are in their homeland. Recording on Merge Records for the last several decades, they put out a string of aesthetically consistent, but quietly non-commercial albums since their early work was assembled on the compilation Suburban Light. I own and appreciate all of them, although I’m not a deep fan of the band’s back catalogue in the way that some audiences are.

The late 2010s and early 2020s brought a series of challenges to MacLean. Some of these were very specific to his own life, including his mother’s illness and eventual death, while others are more universally felt including the global COVID pandemic shutdowns. McLean responded to the challenges in his usual way, writing an album of ruminative, melodic, idiosyncratically mystical material with strong chamber music orientations, I Am Not There Anymore.

MacLean’s background in classical and art music is not a passing phase; he’d studied art music before writing pop songs. (He discussed his influences with erudition and modesty in a recent podcast with Baltimore’s Essential Tremors.)

I hadn’t purchased the new album before seeing the band in Washington DC, but there were some interesting online speculations as to how they would re-create that material and its complicated orchestrations as a touring outfit. The short answer is, they didn’t. All the songs in the setlist, whether new or old, were given the same classically Clientele treatment, MacLean on fluent acoustic and electric guitars and singing, with a spare rhythm section of jazz-inflected drumming and bass. That meant that it was all of a piece, aesthetically contiguous in tone and sound whether it was brand new or twenty-plus years old.

At Songbyrd, the Clientele interspersed the new material from I Am Not There with some of the highlights from MacLean’s long career, including several from the peerless compilation Suburban Light and many of the high points from Strange Geometry, along with selections from the lengthy Clientele back catalogue. It is, mind you, very fussy music: not in a bad way, but this is careful, thoughtful, and frequently somber material by a man who has built an aesthetic and an artistic form and continues to hone it. If you liked Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, but thought they got a bit too raucous at times, or if you admired the careful studio craft of Mark Hollis in Talk Talk but wish he’d stayed in a pop idiom, then the Clientele are for you.

MacLean is a thoughtful and dryly humorous man. Thanking the audience for their sustained support in America, he spoke at times about the “patented Clientele vocal reverb” effect and joked mildly about the band and its sometimes dreary charms. By interspersing the new material from I Am Not There like the jazzy, keyboard-driven “Claire’s Not Real” and “Hey Siobhan” with the back catalogue, it all felt seamless. Honestly, I love the stuff, but to a certain point it can all kind of blur together, not unlike the way that landscapes might blur when viewed through the windshield of a car making its way through a darkening, drizzling late afternoon — a quintessentially Clientele setting. Of course, the string and horn arrangements on the new album couldn’t be replicated in the live setting, at least not at the budget with which MacLean tours, but all of it had a stately grandeur nonetheless. There were moments of rare fragile beauty with early songs like “Reflections of Jane” (has anyone written more songs with women’s names than MacLean?), one of the early singles compiled on Suburban Light, and all of the recent albums (Bonfires on the Heath, The Age of Miracles, etc.) got a song or two. The main set was a brief 12-song show, after which MacLean returned with “Bonfires on the Heath” (but skipping that album’s single, “Harvest Time”) and “I Dreamed of You, Maria” from I Am Not Here.

After that was a strange and awkward and peculiarly English moment: As the crowd clamored for more, the venue’s soundman began indicating that the show had to come to a close. There was a late dance party on the schedule, there was a curfew, something to that effect. Alasdair MacLean walked offstage abashedly while the crowd called for just a single more song, which resulted in an odd semi-apologetic negotiation between MacLean and the Songbyrd soundman, followed by a compromise of five more minutes for the band. I called out for “(Can’t Seem to) Make You Mine,” a lovelorn lament from Strange Geometry, and was rewarded with a final second encore, which was as shimmeringly lovely as you can imagine. Sublime stuff.

Also, I learned that in British English, “Clientele” is pronounced like the French.

Opening were Smashing Times, a delightful twee ensemble that could have stepped right out of a college flat in Oxford during the height of the Sarah Records era, with a charmingly awkward and pregnant lead singer, jangly electric guitars, and faux-naïve drumming. They sang effortlessly tuneful, sing-songy pieces like “Monday in a Small Dull Town,” which honestly sounds like it could be a Clientele title. You can imagine my surprise when the band opened its mouths between songs to speak in flat Mid-Atlantic accents. They’re actually from Baltimore, and are on K Records, with a full-length debut that is just coming out in November. I bought their seven-inch. Well worth following.

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 09/11/2023 08:33PM by zwirnm.
Reply Quote
Re: The Clientele, Songbyrd, Washington DC
September 11, 2023 10:48PM
Oddly enough, I only discovered the Clientele this summer. I started with Suburban Light then worked my way forward. Terrific band with a startling good catalog.

They remind me so much of really good Robyn Hitchcock yet I never read that comparison. Am I the only one who hears that?
Re: The Clientele, Songbyrd, Washington DC
September 11, 2023 10:57PM
Aren’t they great? I can definitely hear some of the spookier Robyn Hitchcock influences, sure, like “Raymond Chandler Evening” or the dreamier rippling stuff like “Element.” (I am not a huge Hitchcock listener so my frame of reference is limited.)
Re: The Clientele, Songbyrd, Washington DC
September 12, 2023 03:14PM
Yeah…good secret band; they have that ‘English’ sound that I can’t really describe skillfully.

I was a little embarrassed that I discovered them as late as I did (they were mentioned on the ‘indiecast’ podcast) but glad we eventually made a connection. I may have read a review at one point years ago, but in the constant glut of new releases we somehow missed each other.
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