Clearlake

Cedars

(Domino; 2003)

By Amir Nezar | 23 July 2003

It's been a long time since a non-experimental album confounded me like Cedars has, from brit-pop-rockers Clearlake. Usually, when a pop album rubs me a certain way, it takes little time for me to pinpoint why it either feels smooth and lovely, or leaves a rash. Grandaddy didn't do it for me because they were pop rock in a coma; the Exploding Hearts rocked me because, in spite of their retro fittings, they played with both technical skill and wonderful abandon. I could tell, last year, that Coldplay was par for the course largely because of their simplistic songs and unimpressive instrumentation; I could tell that Broken Social Scene, this year, were immediately top 5 wonders because of their complex instrument arrangements that still kept a concurrent accessibility to their record.

Initially, I had a singularly unimpressed reaction to Clearlake, and I thought I knew why. It was because they were so simple. Their melodies were great, sure but while the songs were nicely varied, there seemed to be almost no real depth to it, there was scant stop and go, little rhythm change, and zero experimentalism. This is an album that should be just okay. It took what must have been nearly two dozen listens over the course of a few weeks for me to finally understand why I had Clearlake's hooks in my skin. This, boys and girls, is one of those albums that critics nebulously refer to as "nuanced." Now, what the fuck does that mean? I know I used to hate it when critics said it as though "nuances" were some self-evident thing.

It means that you won't understand the greater number of these songs to their full extent until you've taken the cover packaging off, then unpeeled another couple layers, and finally, on headphones late on night, listened to it and all of a sudden understood what it was all about. Or maybe you'll get it quicker than I did. All I knew is I kept getting pulled back.

First, the melodies on this record are uniformly sterling. An excellent example "Almost the Same," the rushing, heady first track, is dominated by a super clear-toned guitar crying out like an angel over the chugging beat and chunky guitars that underpin the song, blowing through the opening tunnel on bouncing wheels of deep drums and a simple bassline. "Fine, I'll admit I may have been wrong..." Jason Pegg sings in a voice that's vaguely reminiscent of far-inferior counterparts Coldplay, and seems to encapsulate all the alto energy of brit-pop singers. He employs the falsetto as well, but not to the typical over-indulgence that so many frontmen of brit-pop seem to love so.

Pegg's voice absolutely works wonders for this band. Alternatively melancholic/resigned and triumphant/desperate, both his voice and lyrics add a universal appeal to this band's sound without making them a pandering cliché. In "Almost the Same," he sings the same lines twice, relating to the seemingly innocuous theme of discovering one's similarity to another, or perhaps to a lover. But where this is could turn into a "you're just like me" song (cue image of me readying critical shotgun) the line is "you're almost the same as me." Pegg's lyrics consistently seem easily scribbled down as an afterthought, but in all of them are undertones, nuances, if you will, of either irony or illusion. In said first track, the slight variation creates an unsureness that appears harmless, but hint at a lingering distance between himself and the person he addresses.

In "The Mind is Evil," Pegg blames all cruelty on the cerveau, and in an ingenious bit of self-mockery and escapism croons "When I'm angry or bitter, it's never my fault / But nobody seems to believe me", blaming his woes on a brain that he claims he cannot control. "Somehow it knows what I'm thinking about, and it's always that one step ahead of me." It's ironic and glib, not to mention that the song in which these clever lyrics are embedded is gorgeous. It moves at waltz tempo and is replete with swelling, well placed strings in minor key, like a recurring dark reminder of Pegg's own personal darkness. In the superb chorus he belts out, like a man desperate to get out of his own head, "Sometimes I think if I killed off my mind, then my heart and I would be free," atop a churning mix of weeping strings, angry guitar, and rising melody.

Songs like "Keep Smiling," while more overt in their intent, are still colored with tints of anguish or defiance, with the lyrics: "Just nod your head and act accordingly, and do the opposite of everything they tell you to." A song that seems to be overpowered with resignation has sown in it the seeds of subversion. The melody, seemingly simple and without any real depth, grows more well-constructed and powerful with each listen, as the subtleties of soft secondary guitars and the extremely clean, lilting main guitar floats over the bass and lightly tapped drums like a sighing willow.

Elsewhere, on album highlight "Wonder If the Snow Will Settle," lyrics apparently concerned with the weather outside betray a hidden personal suffering with a single line: "I wonder if the snow will settle on the ground next year / I wonder whether losing you was such a good idea / I can't seem to remember the last time that it snowed 'round here / I wonder if the snow will settle on the ground this year." You can see Pegg sitting by a window and distracting himself with falling snow in order to put down thoughts of a rift with a lover. The gentle, reverbed guitar interlude between the repeated refrain seems to embody his restlessness before he repeats the words again. These are all things that take at least a few listens to understand, and the music, the instrumentation, is the same way. Initially smooth and clean, it has a kind of pretty, immediate veneer that some might make the mistake of taking at face value. But on closer examination "Come Into the Darkness," a seemingly repetetive verse accompaniment by an acoustic guitar quietly transforms into acoustic, bass, and eventually electric in insistent enveloping cascades before the superlative chorus thunders with barely constrained chaos, cutting out and then crashing back in to bring the song to a dizzying, and hugely satisfying close.

For initially sounding so harmless, I'm continually surprised how much Cedars continues to climb in my esteem. It is vastly more complex than its first few listens let on, more sinister than its pop gloss initially reveals, and it certainly is the best British record I've heard all year. I wouldn't be too surprised if it stays that way.