Man, what a comeback! On its debut, England’s oozing pop quartet Clearlake was a dismal and dreary affair, an unoriginal cover band with no aspirations beyond the routine melodramatic and hyper-elegant suicide watches and the navel-watching guitar sounds of PulpBlurGeneComeSuede. To make matters worse, Lido omits emotion, melody and basic principles of song structure. Climaxes abort; guitars are more muffled than aggressive. If the assumption was that lead singer/guitarist Jason Pegg’s charisma and blighted melancholia would suffice, they don’t, except on the closer, the transparently shimmering “Winterlight.” Elsewhere, Pegg, bassist David Woodward, keyboard player Sam Hewitt and drummer James Butcher mailed in their efforts. But that’s not the worst of it. The Oprah-like lyrics of “Life Can Be So Cruel” go, “So you don’t like yourself / Well, that’s no good / That’s no good at all / If you don’t like yourself / Will anybody else.” Gack!
But instead of becoming punching bags for the Oasis brothers, Clearlake moved off its small island of influences and started to embrace such diverse role models as Yaz, Marvin Gaye, Felt, the Smiths. Lido was molested by contemporary sounds; Cedars explodes with healthy contempt for the trendy. From the first note of the churning, uplifting “Almost the Same” to the mesmerizing and climactic bonus track, “We All Die Alone,” Clearlake gaily violates the state of British music for an aesthetic riven with sharply articulated syllables and chords of beautiful poignancy. The sonic textures are much more than noisy gimmicks; the entire band is more sure handed, no more so than Pegg. From spouting propaganda for youthful misery, he is here a conduit of thoughtful, comprehending empathy. Almost the Same, which contains bits of both albums, is a throwaway, but Cedars is a keeper.
This darkness is not leavened on the superb Wonder If the Sow Will Settle. Though lacking any type of musical significance, the obstinate Pegg continues his gentle reformation, without musical bloodshed or cavestomp aggression, most notably in the wistful guitar and spare voice of the title track. The highlight is a cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl,” a slightly sped-up homage that features brittle and plastic guitar, prettified yodeling, superb production and crafty rhythm work. Bravo.