We Are Epic
309 · 28 December 00
The Clientele: Suburban Light
A short note, in anticipation of next week's year-end lists, about my eligibility rules. A record, of any length or format, is generally eligible in the year of its stated copyright. The most common exceptions are records dated late in one year but, usually due to distribution delays, only actually released early in the next, and obviously these are eligible in the latter year. The still-erratic state of worldwide distribution, however, means that quite a bit of time can sometimes pass between when a record is "released" and when my copy reaches me. If I've made a good-faith effort to acquire something in its release year, but don't succeed until the next year, I usually consider it eligible in the year I first hear it. Records released in one year abroad, but not until the next year in the US, are eligible in the former or latter years according to whether I buy the import or wait for the domestic version, respectively, and although I might, if I have a good reason, treat the record as belonging to its domestic release year even though I bought an import copy the year before, this smacks of cheating to me, so I avoid it. Album eligibility is independent of single eligibility, but not vice versa, so an album eligible in one year may contain tracks from singles that were eligible in earlier years, but once a song has appeared on an album it cannot be eligible in a later year, even if it gets released as a post-album single. B-sides and compilation tracks reprised later in collections or as bonus tracks are judgment calls. Reissues, live albums and collections are eligible for their miscellaneous categories in their release years as above, regardless of the dates of their source material. For New Artist purposes, an artist can be eligible as early as their first release of any sort, but more often as late as their first full-length album. Popularity is a non-factor, so I don't grant eligibility extensions based on belated commercial success, but since I almost never listen to the radio, this is rarely a practical concern. To take the Clientele as an example, then, individual songs would have been eligible, had I known about them, in 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000, based on compilation and single appearances. Suburban Light and the band itself could have been eligible in 2001 if I'd waited for the album's promised domestic issue, or I'd had ordering problems, but I managed to find a copy of the Pointy Records UK release with a full month left in the year for contemplation, so the album and band, even though the bulk of Suburban Light's material comes from earlier, are now due for 2000 consideration.
I ought to be able to "consider" this album fairly efficiently, in fact. Depending on how much of the Clientele's elusive back catalog you've tracked down, as few as three of these thirteen songs could be new to you. I was missing a compilation and a single, myself, so I'm hearing two others for the first time. Here, for obsessive clarity's sake, is the complete history, so far, as best I can tell: "We Could Walk Together" appeared on a 1997 Fierce Panda compilation called Cry My a Liver, "What Goes Up" and "Five Day Morning" were on the band's first Pointy 45 in 1998, "Reflections After Jane" and "An Hour Before the Light" were on a 1998 Johnny Kane 45 (titled All the Dust and Glass, after a line from "Reflections After Jane"), "Saturday" and "Lacewings" were on a 1999 Motorway 45, "I Had to Say This" and "Monday's Rain" were on the second Pointy 45 later in 1999, "(I Want You) More Than Ever" and "6 A.M. Morningside" were on a 2000 Elefant 45, "Bicycles" appeared on a Japanese fanzine flexi and was reprised on the March Records EP A Fading Summer earlier this year, "Driving South" was new to the March EP, and "Rain", "Joseph Cornell" and "As Night Is Falling" are new on the album. The only songs of these that are not included on Suburban Light are "What Goes Up", "6 A.M. Morningside" and "Driving South", the last of which is a particularly regrettable omission since it means a completist will have to buy the March EP even though the other three songs on it ("An Hour Before the Light", "Bicycles" and "Saturday") are duplicated on the album.
Familiarity with the singles, however, at least for me, translates surprisingly poorly into preparation for this album. The EP aside, I'm used to hearing Clientele songs one at a time, with long gaps in between them as I walk over to the turntable and flip the record. I'm also used to hearing them on vinyl, with its attendant crackle, and because I almost never listen to music through headphones when I'm home, and don't listen to vinyl anywhere else, I hadn't scrutinized any of these songs as closely as headphones allow before now. So I put the album on expecting a concentrated version of the experience of listening to the singles, and instead I feel panicky. It jumps from precious song to precious song far too quickly, and I feel like if my concentration lapses, even momentarily, I'm betraying some kind of trust. I miss the surface noise of the 45s, which had come to seem like integral ambiance. I get to the end feeling like a slow, graceful story has been told in a confused hurry, and the point has been obscured.
But I took the CD with me to my parents' house, over the Christmas weekend, and late Christmas Eve, listening to Suburban Light three times in a row while creeping slowly through the middle hundred of Lawrence Norfolk's The Pope's Rhinoceros, on what would have been the bulky old headphones I got with my very first stereo except those died many years ago, in what would have been the bedroom I grew up in except my parents are now on their seventh house and third state since then, I finally make the leap. Half the key is realizing that the recording and performance flaws the CD's clear sound reveals are more enchanting than the pressing flaws the 45s imposed. The other half is just acclimatization, getting to the point where I know how the album flows as well as I previously knew how the individual songs flow, and this becomes my mind's new notion of the music's pace, instead of something I have to scramble to keep up with.
The album opens with "I Had to Say This", three tentative guitar notes not much of an introduction before the rest of the band joins in, but the interesting parts of the structures of Clientele songs are usually the way they support themselves in the middles, not the beginnings and endings, and the bridges of "I Had to Say This", where the drums switch to an evasive tick (as if Howard Monk learned theory from math rock, but practice from skiffle), Alasdair Maclean pings single guitar notes leading up to what I guess you can't call a chord progression since neither side of it involve chords, and finally Alasdair's wordless falsetto vocal sweeps in (and on headphones you can hear the reverb gate open up a fraction of a second before he starts singing, presumably as somebody unmutes the track during mixdown), are channeled from some pristinely unselfconscious drawing-room past that never happened, where choruses aren't supposed to have words, and rock's excesses aren't yet dreamed. "Rain" opens with springy, Byrds-like guitar arpeggios, but instead of "Turn, Turn, Turn" the Clientele dive into a burbling, confectionery surrender, James Hornsey's bass grumbling impassively, whichever drummer it is (Mark Keen replaced Monk somewhere along the way) tapping along boxily, as if there just wasn't any reverb to be spared from the vocals. "I want you so bad in my heart", Alasdair sighs, the "in my heart" somehow sounding like a necessary, but redundant, clarification, as if he's only vaguely aware that there's any other locus for wanting. Stars, rain, streets and seasons haunt all of these songs, like melancholy is as much an environment factor as a poetic conceit. "Reflections After Jane" is spectral and wistful, a gauzy tour de force in interpreting the machinations of an entire city as the external manifestations of a single man's romantic impulses. "Feel the city searching for my loneliness / In all the dust and glass". A perfunctory guitar solo, at the end, sounds like the Smiths have yet to be invented, and perhaps now won't be.
"We Could Walk Together" is, by Clientele standards, relatively effusive, quick and steady and less pinging than pealing, but shored up here in the middle of the album, with a "motorway" reference linking it to "Reflections After Jane" and the strange quasi-surf fade-out dying into the hesitant opening of "Monday's Rain", it's disarmed and thus symptomatic of restlessness, at most, and more likely the momentary self-defeating thrill of seeing the borders of your own stasis. Strings hum in the background of "Monday's Rain", Alasdair flipping into and out of falsetto, and I don't even know which epoch he thinks he's invoking. "Joseph Cornell" is the Clientele's closest approach to a dance song, skipping drums and booming bass coaxing along the glassy guitar, but Alasdair, called on to supply an echoable refrain, comes up with "If we're on Delancey Street at night / In the after-train-ride quiet, / Barking dogs by Highgate Park, / Something's here but something's gone", and despairing of turning these literal dogs into the metaphorical ones one might wonder who let out, the song quietly expires. "An Hour Before the Light" spirals and glitters in a semi-psychedelic blur, half Liverpool half California, like an anthem for a cloister, or a lullaby for wind. The reverb entrances and exits are even sharper than on "I Had to Say This", nearly to the point where their hissing competes with the cymbals, and at the end there's the distinct creak of somebody sitting back in their chair. "(I Want You) More Than Ever" is as sweet as rueful love songs come, like "Leaving on a Jet Plane" rewritten for a smaller world in which the sound of leaving is never engine roar, but merely the sound of worn shoe soles on wet stone streets, the same as the sound of arriving again, of course.
The finale, to the extent that this deliberately inconclusive album has such a thing, starts building five songs before the end, with "Saturday", the second Clientele song I ever heard and still one of the most definitive, a swirl of taxi lights, carnivals, St. Mary's, Vincent Street, the night, her face (or is it her faith?), more stars, more loneliness, more rain, a river, football crowds, December, home-bound cars and a hummed fadeout borrowed from a Christmas carol, the delicate pop hymn of which Spinal Tap's "(Listen to the) Flower People" is a cartoonish mockery. The brittle, jazzy "Five Day Morning" might be the least licentious pop song ever devised about an affair with a married woman, the "again" at the end of "I don't know if I'll see you again" repeating first like a mantra, but gradually taking over, as if the farewell song is the relationship's product, not its memento. "Bicycles" crinkles cheerfully, yet more rain and cars and roads, perhaps the song they could have left out for the EP's sake, but the slow "As Night Is Falling, the last of the new songs, is the first one that ventures a new direction, loops of background noise (a train passing over a bridge, reversed?) giving way to purring organ and a distracted drum rustle. "Oh Miss Jones, it's me!", Alasdair exclaims, Mrs. Jones from "Five Day Morning" having become mysteriously unmarried (or maybe her daughter?), but his declaration echoes into empty space, and it's clear it's none of us he's addressing. "Lacewings", the last song, returns to the beginning, or to my introduction to the Clientele at least, slide-guitar wobbling like the torchward suicide trajectories of moths. If eligibility was a function of affinity, rather than timing, I have a hard time thinking of any list the Clientele wouldn't occupy by themselves. If it weren't for the Field Mice and Belle and Sebastian I probably wouldn't have been ready for this, but the Sarah Records version of shyness is aware and intricately contrived, and the Clientele's is so self-contained it amounts to confidence. Suburban Light isn't nostalgic, it's anachronistic, an album it should no longer be possible to make without it sounding like research or pastiche, but if these songs were supposed to imitate heroes, for me they have failed magnificently. I try not to predict things, because you'll appreciate the present better if you don't dwell on how temporary it is, but I'll make this exception: I think this record isn't just unusual and inspired, but Important, and we will look back and say that this is where a few subtle and pervasive changes began, and a lot of others, perhaps as various as Guided by Voices' garage production aesthetic, Jeff Buckley's grace, Elliott Smith's reticence and Travis' solemnity, started to coalesce towards what we'll later think of as their eventual shape. The Clientele may represent a chapter of an imaginary pop history, tonight, but imagination is what history always looks like before it starts.
Kathryn Williams: Little Black Numbers
Most successful revolutions aren't led, exactly, as much as they're represented. If the Clientele become the standard-bearers of a quiet, articulated reconception of pop it won't be by quickly attracting a mass of new disciples, it'll be because you and I, if you decide to participate, start redrawing our mental maps of the existing musical landscape to reflect their presence. People who could have been part of other movements, who could conceivably have started other movements, will get incorporated into this one, the same way Sarah McLachlan's Lilith Fair gave Suzanne Vega and Natalie Merchant a new context, and REM and the Posies revived Big Star. We could easily begin with British semi-folk-singer Kathryn Williams' second album, Little Black Numbers, also not yet released in the US (the UK version is on her own label, Caw, but I assume since her fall Mercury Prize nomination she's at least had distribution offers). Oversimplifications are insulting, but I've rarely heard an album that lends itself as readily to an oversimplification as Little Black Numbers does to my thinking of Kathryn Williams as a female Nick Drake. She sings quietly, like a less-haunted Stina Nordenstam, and most of these arrangements revolve around her acoustic guitar, cello, double bass and scattered percussion, the strings sometimes staying out of the way, sometimes expanding the songs' scales. As I repeat "a female Nick Drake" to myself, though, I remember that my understanding of Nick Drake isn't especially deep. I have all four records (counting Time of No Reply), but I only bought them a few years ago, and I certainly couldn't tell you by title which songs belong to which. So I keep playing Little Black Numbers to learn more about what I claim it resembles, but inevitably what I really learn in listening is how it differs. "We Dug a Hole" is spare and cautious, Jonny Bridgwood's rubbery double bass sliding up and down the low register while a guitar picks out little two-string chords. Leaning close to the microphone, Kathryn concentrates on keeping the last syllables of lines from trailing away, and once the lyrics start repeating a phalanx of cellos, a flute, timpani and some background muttering rise up behind her to fashion catharsis out of coda. "Soul to Feet" adds a layer of Latin percussion, and comes out sounding something like "Hotel California" remade by Dido. "Stood" is subtler, no drums at all, but Emma Williams joins Kathryn for some airy, Sarah-esque harmonies, and I'm pleased that as Kathryn reaches for a detail to explain a hopeless crush, what she comes up with is "I used to follow you round in a casual way, / Miss good shows / On the radio / Just to see your face", reversing not only the usual role of pop music in relationship rationalizations, but also the dynamic between intensity and belief. "Jasmine Hoop" adds some Hammond organ, a dry drum beat and sparkly guitar-picking, but the vocal delivery creeps toward Jewel and Dar Williams, and the lyrics, half bitter half romantic, a breakup/reconciliation song that can't quite make up its mind, could be the thread that connects Aimee Mann and Alanis Morissette. A sinuous auto-duet on the elegiac "Fell Down Fast" reminds me of Astrid Williamson, but the thumping bass and clicking drums situate the tribute inside the circuit of unseen clockwork, a memorable musical touch even if I can't think of a thematic purpose for it. Given enough electricity, I'm convinced "Tell the Truth As If It Were Lies" could sound like a cross between Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" and Aerosmith's "Dream On". "Morning Song" is a rare lullaby for singing people back to sleep. A cello/saxophone duet exhorts "Toocan", but Kathryn reigns in her vocal part to compensate, and the combination of nervous energy and restraint reminds me of Christine Fellows, and beyond her of Kathleen Yearwood. "Each Star We See" gets sidetracked in minor-key PJ Harvey delusions, for me, but "We Came Down From the Trees" has both the purest Nick Drake moments and a goofy lyric worthy of a Jewel who stayed in school long enough to learn about evolutionary biology. If we're to construe Kathryn in relation to the Clientele it won't be via literal similarities, since there aren't many, but they share the unstated convictions that songs arise from silence, not noise, that percussion can be composed and applied like other instruments instead of picked from a preset list, and that songs are a way to fix evanescent impulses so you can examine them, but you won't necessarily learn what you expected to. Bridgwood's firmly-plucked acoustic bass here plays a role akin to Maclean's watery guitar in the Clientele, giving the arrangements a core element that doesn't impose restrictive rock-trope associations.
The song I end up carrying away from Little Black Numbers, though, and I think this means our revolution has a ways to go, is the album's most straightforward folk song, "Flicker". Acoustic guitar, cello, bass and a lilting, unadorned vocal wrap around a simple paean to mortality. It doesn't sound like the future of music, it sounds like something Woody Guthrie might have taught Sara Hickman. But that's OK. Revolutions will move sideways and backwards on the way to moving forwards, and worrying about which direction we're going at every individual moment, although it seems like it ought to improve our navigation, will only lead to our convincing ourselves that it's safest to never say a word.
Mascott: Follow the Sound
It might seem like quite a distance from the Clientele to David Gray, but if you let me have the Clientele/Kathryn Williams link I can get there with only one more intermediate step, as Follow the Sound, the full-length debut from ex-Juicy singer Kendall Jane Meade's well-assisted solo project Mascott, has both Kathryn's intimate singing style and her arrangement fondness for double bass, and some of David's twitchy, post-drum-and-bass rhythmic sense. Meade has played with both Helium and the Spinanes, and when I think back I'm pretty sure that she also opened one of their shows here that I didn't bother to arrive early for, which now seems unfortunate, as Mascott may well turn out to be a middle ground between Helium and the Spinanes that I like nearly as well as either of them. Follow the Sound opens with the jittery drum-and-piano title track, like a muted Suddenly Tammy dance remix with a Yes keyboard solo in the middle and some vocal tricks swiped from Jane Siberry. The languid "Keeper of Secrets" marries an understated, Spinanes-like arrangement to cheery, Sara Hickman-ish singing. "The Rays" sounds even more like the Spinanes playing and Jane Siberry singing. The plainly Helium-esque Rhodes piano on the moaning "History, As Planned" is actually supplied by ex-Dambuilders violinist Joan Wasser, who switches back to a fluttery violin for the evasive, rumbling "The Bells of Night". Chris Seligman and Torquil Campbell of Stars take over production for the crisp, chatty drum-machine throwaway "Costume Ball", which I can imagine becoming Kendall's "Tom's Diner" albatross if any remixers get ahold of it. The Mekons' Sally Timms steps in to play Emmylou Harris to Kendall's Patty Griffin on the glorious, sweepingly atmospheric "Birds That Cannot Fly". Dual vocal tracks on the cover of Reservoir's "Weight of the World" remind me of Astrid again. "Yellow Room" is jazzier than I really like, in much the same way that Dar Williams sometimes exceeds what I think of as her reach, but Kendall ends the record with her deadpan folk song to go with Kathryn's "Flicker", this one a tranquilly uncluttered cover of Steve Tilston's "I Really Wanted You" (the first song on his 1971 debut album, Acoustic Confusion). Follow the Sound's production (five songs recorded in Chicago with Jim O'Rourke, three in Brooklyn with Jeffrey Baron of The Ladybug Transistor and The Essex Green, "Costume Ball" with Stars and "I Really Wanted You" with the Shoestrings' Mario Suau in Detroit) will probably lead to it being compared with bigger, brasher records, but to me its charm and value come not from the minor-celebrity cast but from Kendall's own sense of calm proportion, which suggest that its peers, besides Little Black Numbers, are more likely Astrid's Boy for You and Emm Gryner's Science Fair, small albums anchored against the void.
Mark Kozelek: Rock 'N' Roll Singer
And if you need a few more deadpan folk songs, or slow stories (or fast stories, for that matter, retold slowly), Red House Painters leader Mark Kozelek contributes a few more on his seven-song solo-EP Rock 'N' Roll Singer. The fact that three of them are actually AC/DC covers sounds significant, but need not enter into your calculations, since once Kozelek gets through with them they all have exactly the same mournful, lingering dignity as the reverent fourth cover, of John Denver's "Around and Around". Of the three original songs, "Find Me, Ruben Olivares" is a breathtakingly beautiful traveler's love song first released on last year's Shanti Project compilation (credited there to the Red House Painters, but it's the same solo version used here) and "Metropol 47" is a somber condemned-man's farewell (imminent political execution as a metaphor for a relationship's demise) (or maybe it's just imminent political execution; assuming all sad stories are relationship metaphors may be my problem) whose sublimated menace is channeled into the percussive strike of the pick on the strings. But my new favorite Kozelek song, displacing "Find Me, Ruben Olivares", which in turn displaced his credibility-strainingly emotional cover of the Cars' "All Mixed Up", is now "Ruth Marie", the EP's six-minute conclusion, an unflinchingly serious and dumbfoundingly heart-wrenching attempt to write the combination memoir, internal monologue and deathbed plea that a nursing-home patient is no longer able to say aloud to her daughters. I can imagine Beth Nielsen Chapman trying this, or perhaps Sally Fingerett. But men? Richard Shindell, maybe, and probably nobody else. Yet Kozelek doesn't even sound troubled. A few sketchy guitar chords circle, unhurriedly, the funereal pattern varied only by fingertip flicks across the strings just as other hand changes positions. "I feel you cry, but I can't speak my mind. / Will you hold me and never let me go? / 'Cause I hate it when you walk outside that door, / 'Cause I know I won't ever see your eyes, / The eyes I gave you." I think this might be the saddest song I've ever heard, or ever expect to. Songs have been written about far worse tragedies. Arguably senescence isn't even tragic, except in the most abstract sense. The song verges on paralyzing not because she's dying, but because she's alive enough to love, but not alive enough to say goodbye. "I'm going to tell you half the story so you'll come back", Kathryn Williams sings in "Jasmine Hoop". We spend our lives telling halves of stories, I fear, gamely attempting to manufacture suspense, only to find out at the end that we no longer have the breath to finish them. Abandoned cliffhangers crumble defeatedly into the ocean. But what's the alternative? Truth transcends life, so to tell a true story you must believe in your own immortality, in which case you only realize it's time to end your own story when it's too late. All human stories, therefore, are really halves of stories, and finishing them is ultimately something we must do for each other. Here, then, are two definitions of love: to create a life and then release it, and to want to understand another life well enough to be able to write the end of its story. Weighed against these boundary responsibilities, at the edges of lives, all this stuff we distract ourselves with in between, interpolating faint distinctions and making up obscure rationales for them, seems fairly minor. But don't forget, these are the stories we're talking about starting and ending. We may not get to write our final lines, but we can try to live the rest of our lives clearly, try to enact our stories such that when it comes time, and someone who loved us has to pass along our farewell, they can just say "And the moral is...", and then something beautiful, some insight that means nobody will ever die the same way again, some idea worth our being outlived, worth every second and week and year of our lives it took to imply.