The Clientele

Strange Geometry

(Merge; 2005)

By Amir Nezar | 20 October 2005

For the first four tracks of the Clientele’s Strange Geometry, affairs proceed more or less along expected lines. Long-time fans and Violet Hour-converts should find themselves fully satisfied that the group has maintained their ethereal atmospherics at no expense to the fragile intricacy of their reverb-heavy songwriting. In fact, the group’s coalesced new musical details into their throwback dream-pop–strings, for one, and a soft synthetic thread or two. They’ve even removed a fraction of sonic muddle from their occasionally soupy arrangements. All of these moves should impress and further endear them to those seeking at least a hint of development in the group’s ethos since The Violet Hour. In this context, Strange Geometry’s “E.M.P.T.Y.” proceeds pleasantly in their slightly altered, but familiar vein.

But after the second minute and thirty fourth second of such pleasing pop, something completely unexpected flips a new switch for the lovelorn lads: a psych breakdown, complete with a ‘60s guitar solo. Seventeen seconds later, they act like nothing has happened; the melody moves placidly onwards, the string backing hums along in the background, and it takes a second to say, “Wait, wait, wait. What the fuck just happened?”

What appears an attempted snowjob is more of an indicator of potentiality; The Clientele may seem limited in scope and sound, easily inviting an undiscerning listener to the conclusion that these songs, for all their prettiness, ramble about in an essentially static stylistic rut. But that most obvious deviation from their typical style effectively draws one’s attention to similar deviations that sneak into the comfortable folds of Strange Geometry. Uncover them, and the band’s deceptive simplicity coils into more labyrinthine layers.

If The Clientele aren’t a revolutionary, great band, they are nonetheless very good at being traditionalists. They are highly able at delivering the satisfying, unpretentious goods, and their second album-proper is just one such set of goods. The satisfaction to be derived from their music has a great deal to do with the way in which they stand out against both novelty and radio-made tripe.

One ought not to begrudge them interesting moments; they are bountiful in Strange Geometry. “Impossible” constructs outstanding variations on its starting rhythm, and features the same psych-solo climax that’s so startling in the excellent “E.M.P.T.Y.” Nor is their guitar-work merely predictably decorative. “Step into the Light” forefronts strings and bass leads, from which clean guitar lines step out in subdued splendor. And throughout, altered melodies occasionally disrupt pools of pretty plucked notes and the band’s usual excellent bass leads.

Given the predominantly perfect consistency of quality that Strange Geometry possesses, only one of its songs is a questionable aberration: “Losing Haringey,” which adopts a spoken narrative as a relief against the beautiful flow of music behind it. The narrative itself is of substantial interest, recounting the narrator’s experience of realizing he is “in a photograph” taken by his grandmother in 1982, and its details are interesting and its arc complex. But its placement renders the music behind it superfluous – it would have been a good closing tale, but instead it disrupts the general melancholic flow of the album near its end.

That conceded, there’s not another disappointing moment to be found on the entire album–a superb example of the value of music that favors reliable quality over risky divergence. Call it safety, but in this case confidence in safety is eminently rewarding. Strange Geometry is an album of continued and developed patterns which can still be mined and explored to the same lovely effects as their previous permutations. Basically, it’s another understated near-masterpiece from a band that doesn’t need to make a bang to make a deep impression.