The Clientele

The Violet Hour

(Merge; 2003)

By Amir Nezar | 17 July 2003

I like to think of periods of music as paintings that get put into a permanent museum exhibit when their time frames are done. They take time and development and a great deal of battering, but their points of fame and wonder emerge both as a part of and in spite of that process. Hence: just as one would be rightly annoyed by someone copying Cezanne’s style without his time-worn process to that expert style, so I am annoyed when a band lifts the most easily recognizable elements of a music style without having put itself into that music. In a few words, mimicry, no matter how expertly done, is still mimicry, and the bands that engage in it deserve every bad connotation that comes with the word. Thus, the Datsuns pretty much suck for trying to simply rip off old garage rock; the Vines, in trying to reach back for retro, get their arms chopped off by the more critical indie press (do they even need them with all the production in their record?); and Audioslave, out of ideas and seeking the grunge revival that really ought not to arrive, fall flat out of the radio like some flaccid old pancake syruped over with so much studio fixin’s that the masses eat it up without realizing it’s been molding for nearly a decade.

Yikes. Seems like I’ve just about bent The Clientele over the stool. But all these bad examples are counterpoints, friends. The Clientele being the point to which they are counterexamples. The Clientele sure sound like they ought to be in the sixties. Their mix of hazy, ambling folk, olden-days psychedelia and a fuckload of reverb would be enough, but Alisdiar MacLean’s voice helps clinch it. It’s off in the distance, bleeding through the cold air with so much hurt calm. My dad thought they sounded like Beatles — this is of course an idiotic comparison (he knows of the Beatles, Santana, Zeppelin, and that’s about it), but that it seemed so familiar to him is evidence enough that this music would almost seem outdated. It certainly is the album for a comedown off of old Mary J. But the sound of it is so earnest, so oddly passionate, that what might initially seem to be nostalgic crockery seems genuine and engulfing. Listening to The Violet Hour (did I mention it was their debut?) makes you warm inside,and though it’s by no means challenging, repeat listens will have you feeling your way through the nuances of their almost uniformly soft sound to find the minor keys and pangs that float under an echoing, shimmering surface. And the nice thing is that when I reach for reference points, or bands to name-drop, it’s difficult to think of one. I suppose Simon and Garfunkel might have half a fingerprint on this album…but I honestly start to think that I’m too young to remember who might influence them.

The opening track, sharing the name of the album, sounds like a summer day. Immediately The Clientele introduce you to what they’re all about, and it’s relatively simple. They’ve been practicing the sound for a number of singles and EP’s thus far, the touch of which blushes through all of this record. The sound is like velvet, like a sea of it. A lilting guitar blankets over drums you barely notice and a streamlined, comfortable bass that starts unchallenging but becomes evidently more thought out. For the Clientele this is essential (it’s what they failed to do in previous releases), because their guitars are so airy and dreamlike that they couldn’t support a song on their own; rather they make perfect decoration, and their sometimes out-of-tune tones fit nicely with the homemade feel of this sound. The base forms a solid skeleton for the tune and MacLean’s voice sheds its angelic twilight sound over the piece. The drums are barely there but present nonetheless — for these kinds of daydream-scapes of rainy days and cooling summers they are perfectly in character. MacLean’s lyrics are universal while sidestepping triteness, as he croons in the last part of the song over his own different-key voice, "So that summer came and went / And I became cold," nicely leaving open the interpretation of the word "cold" to the listener and adding a tone of melancholy to his soundscape.

Which is not to say that The Violet Hour is all melancholic and slow. The Clientele manage to (slightly) mix up the temp on tracks like "When You and I Were Young," where an energetic (in that speeding-up-from-a-slow-walk-to-a-trot kind of way) initial push urges the song to its pretty and slower refrain. The immediate image is a parent pushing his/her child on a bicycle in an autumnal park. "Lamplight" sees them messing with slowdowns that kick into slightly-out-of-tune minor guitars that then push into major keys, and it’s a welcome change. At one point they even use (GASP!) distortion. In several of their songs they pepper their typical three piece setup with recordings, organs, and the occasional quirky element. Oh, and I love the piano in "Prelude" — exceedingly simple, its use of space is heartbreaking.

Basically, the only challenge (and it’s a serious one) that I would pose The Clientele have in The Violet Hour is keeping you entranced. If you’re not in the right mood, you’ll glaze right over it without thinking twice, and a good part of that fault can be attributed to the band and the occasional filler — "Voices in the Mall," the second track, comes to mind as a good example. And once in a while you might suffer through a just plain uneventful, harmless song and the saccharine lyric now and then. But given a mellow atmosphere or even a relaxed state of mind, this is the perfect quiet-season record, replete with dreamy vocals, dreamy guitars, and dreamy lyrics. Though my bet is that it sounds best in three out of four seasons. You can probably guess which ones.