9. THE CLIENTELE – SUBURBAN LIGHT (2000)

In the beginning was the word. And the word was…Felt. Alasdair Maclean saw the word, scribbled on his school chum James Hornsey’s pencil case. The friendship was sealed and The Clientele was born. Or so the legend goes. The band formed in London in 1991, while the boys were still at school. It would be almost a decade before their first fragile songs emerged to a politely indifferent world.

These songs, a compilation of early recordings including singles and B Sides were for the most part recorded on an eight-track portastudio above Innes Phillips’ flat in 1996. Phillips, guitarist and one of the founder members, would leave and go on to form his own band The Relict, before these songs eventually saw the light of day in 2000. As for the collection of songs assembled here on Suburban Light…well you have to trust me on this one…it is arguably one of the most perfect albums from any English band in the last twenty five years. Yes, it is that good.

Comparisons with Felt are obvious (‘We Could Walk Together’s guitar line for example), NZ’s The Chills perhaps less so (listen to the ghostly guitar on ‘An Hour Before The Light’, uncannily reminiscent of The Chills’ classic ‘Pink Frost’), but it is most often claimed the band are musically indebted to The Velvet Underground. Certainly ‘Reflections After Jane’ owes a nod to ‘Candy Says’ or ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ but I wonder if the comparison is apt. Indeed, perhaps it’s a little lazy. In reality the two bands inhabit entirely different worlds. The Clientele’s reverb-drenched songs of wistful suburban ennui the perfect counterpoint to the urban brutality and debonaire perversions of the Velvets. The lyrical contrast is even more spectacular: compare The Velvets’ catalogue of junkies, transvestites and freaks who send themselves by long-distance post in cardboard boxes; to the Clientele’s preference for documenting rainy Sunday afternoons in the park, or walking through the crowds with “Miss Jones” (of whom nothing is revealed, but whom I imagine to be a rather pretty but stuffy English Literature student). Perhaps a more intuitive comparison than the Velvets could be made with Galaxie 500 (performing a cover of ‘Waterloo Sunset’). Whatever comparison one makes, the band would never sound quite like this again. The songs on their first album proper, The Violet Hour did not quite match up (with a few mis-steps along the way). Edges would be softened, the production become more sophisticated. The later albums with the exception of Strange Geometry (which is their other indisputably classic record) somehow strangely failed to recapture the thematic harmony of this first release. It is particularly unusual for a compilation to achieve such a singular vision, such a feeling of unity, but it’s there.

 

Despite greater, though still very limited success on the other side of the Atlantic, The Clientele remain as quintessentially English as an episode of Camberwick Green. Had they been children of a different era they would no doubt have been invited to compose the soundtrack for Bronco Bullfrog, Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush or some other cult late 1960s Brit youth film. The occasional backwards guitar loop alongside MacLean’s penchant for colourful cravats places the band at least spiritually and aesthetically in that era. So, right place, wrong time perhaps? Well, not exactly…there is nothing contrived about the Clientele’s Englishness. Neither gimmick nor motif, rather it emanates organically from their music like the dispersion of light through a prism.

“If we’re on Delancey Street at night,
In the after train ride quiet,
Barking dogs by Highgate Pond,
Something’s here but something’s gone’ McLean sings on ‘Joseph Cornell’ – it is a typically evocative mood piece and the album is littered with such examples:
‘The taxi lights were in your eyes
So warm against St. Mary’s spires
The carnival was over in the rain
And arm in arm through Vincent Street.
The evening hanging like a dream
I touched your face and saw the night again.” (‘Saturday’)

These lost and unrepeatable moments of nostalgia and yearning, moments so vivid and personal are detailed with such precision for time and place, yet somehow paradoxically become universally tangible and almost unbearably poignant for the listener, who immersed in their atmosphere, casts his own shadow upon those spaces and places. I saw The Clientele play to a sparse audience at The Woodside Social in Glasgow in 2005. Perhaps not an ‘I was there’ moment but imprinted on my memory nonetheless. A few members of Belle & Sebastian, one or two from Glasgow folkies Lucky Luke and a few shy-looking snappily dressed mods. Almost their perfect audience. I remember walking out in the cold air afterward, the hazy drunken glare of the street lights providing the backdrop to the band hurriedly throwing their gear into the back of the van. And walking away into the night. Clearly one of those time and place moments – the spell had worked.

Post-millennium there exists very little consensus of opinion on the greatest albums of our age. It would be more straightforward to ask George Galloway to publicly extol the virtues of US foreign policy than expect acquiescence from others in this regard. Perhaps in a progressively individualistic culture which is post-everything, with few recognisable musical genres or subcultures, we have reached that point where consensus is virtually impossible. So we claim precedence for our individual favourites. And they become all the more precious for it. Suburban Light is one of those to treasure. The Clientele are the great lost English band of the new millennium, as genteel yet vital as Nick Drake, as elusive and undervalued as The Television Personalities, and musically, comfortably the equal of Felt. Their early songs, reflective and melancholic possess an enduring appeal. They will haunt you. Let them into your life. (JJ)

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7. ROBERT WYATT – ROCK BOTTOM (1974)

ROBERT WYATT – ROCK BOTTOM (1974)

If  Rock Bottom were issued today, it would probably receive the flippant response that it was the only occasion in history when a couple performing their infantile private jokes has elicited anything other that irritated nausea. This would gravely short-change, not to mention insult,  both Robert Wyatt and his wife, Alfreda (Alfie) Benge; firstly because, as is well-documented, she had just supported him through the ordeal of paralysis from the waist down after falling from a window the previous year (with characteristic restraint,  Wyatt has since suggested the accident had a liberating effect on music he’d already largely written) but also because the record is genuinely – to use another debased adjective- awesome. The pet names and in-jokes that permeate the Alifib/Alifie medley are affectionate but also more than slightly unsettling, suggesting almost a regression to a childlike state, particularly as Gary Windo’s tenor sax scurries in like a venomous snake seeking prey. There’s another pair of twins in Little Red Riding/Robin Hood Hit The Road- the former in particular almost defies description, as Wyatt pleads “Oh stop it, stop it” and the whole song begins to run backwards like an engulfing mudslide and the matchless Ivor Cutler peers out of the sludge to taunt with talk of “lunchtea” and joining  a hedgehog in bursting tyres, and it all culminates in an endless fade of what sounds like an entire nation sounding a fanfare. In fact, it’s the trumpets of one man, Mongezi Feza, who would die of pneumonia the following year. Then there’s Sea Song, possibly the most aptly named song ever, its restful drift the sound of moorings slipped and shoreline receding further and further until things get choppy with a piano solo which matches Aladdin Sane for sweet discordance and Wyatt calls out wordlessly, not waving…

If Robert Wyatt is, as he once memorably described himself, a “gawping tourist of jazz”, Rock Bottom takes him- and the listener- to the jazz pyramids, Florence and Niagara Falls. Start packing now. (PG)

6. GRANT HART – INTOLERANCE (1989)

grantGRANT HART – INTOLERANCE (1989)

Dropped by Warners, Grant Hart found himself back on SST, the label that had released Husker Du’s three best records. Stripped of Bob Mould’s fizzing guitar and his own skittering drums, Harts first release after the acrimonious split of Husker Du is a hypnotic meditation on regret and loss, full of mystery and magic, and littered with characters struggling to make sense of their chaotic lives, and which may include himself and his former band mates.

The opener All Of My Senses offers few clues as to what will follow, coming on like a lo-fi New Order. Warm keyboards and hand claps replace the harsh drones and groans that open the record. According to Michael Azzerad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life, Hart was using methadone in an effort to conquer his heroin addiction when Husker Du split, although he was sober by the time Intolerance was recorded. Whether or not the song is auto-biographical, its hard to hear Hart singing “I’m using, I’m using” while the gospel backing singers sing “Pulling a plough but I don’t know how” without the feeling that he’s referring to his own struggles with addiction.

The guitars are back for Now That You Know Me. It wouldn’t have been out of place on Warehouse Songs And Stories (it was performed by Husker Du live), but a wailing harmonica gives it an almost Dylanish feel (they are both from Minnesota!).

Fanfare In D Major builds tension in the verses with rolling drums and sawing strings before exploding with one of Grants greatest pop choruses.

Drug references are most explicit on the junkie gospel sea shanty of The Main which creaks and sways like great big clipper ship (I avoided policemen when I went to cop, De Quincey, smack in the middle, the hell that I went through when I stuck it into etc). Grant seems to be saying the experience is universal – “Reeperbahn, Christiana, Pigalle all the same” (these being notorious drug dealing areas in Hamburg, Copenhagen and Paris).

Side two opens with Twenty Five Forty One, nostalgia for a shared apartment after a broken relationship. From the sound of it he’d rather be back where “we had to leave the stove on all night so the mice wouldn’t freeze” than where he is now. Given that the title is taken from the address of Husker Du’s rehearsal house where all the members had lived at some point, you wonder if he’s also missing his former band.

The inconsequential instrumental Roller Rink leads into the soulful You’re The Victim, the only song I can think of that combines jaunty whistling with what sounds like a dentists drill! Another one that has you wondering if it’s directed at a former band mate ”Every thing you do to hurt me makes you the victim”.

On Anything Hart sings of “climbing mountains in my sleep”. She Can See The Angels Coming could almost be a sequel to The Main. Organ drones and cymbals swell, giving the song an oceanic sense of lives pulled this way and that.  Reprise returns us full circle for a minute or so of the banging and clanking drones that open All Of My Senses.

Intolerance, on which Hart reputedly plays all the instruments himself is a warm, personal, confessional record, which despite its subject matter in the end is cathartic and uplifting . A triumph. (TT)

THE NEW PERFECT COLLECTION Follow @tnpcollection

The Perfect Collection was published in 1982. Subtitled “The Rock Albums everybody should have and why”, editor Tom Hibbert and his contributors selected 200+ albums, which, if you bought them all, you’d have a “broad, balanced, lively, collection of all thats best in rock music”.

When this book appeared in our local library it consumed and obsessed us. It wasn’t perfect. It didn’t inspire us to track down all of the records like some other lists of the “greatest records ever made” (I’ve still not heard some of them). It included Vanilla Fudge’s The Beat Goes On which it claims is probably the worst album ever made. It included Pat Boone, Cliff Richard and Gary Glitter and omitted Howlin’ Wolf, Link Wray, T Rex and Can.

Where the book got it right was the inclusion of some records which I have never seen included in any other best of lists. It turned us on to records like The Standells’ Try It, The Seeds’ Raw & Alive and The Flaming Groovies’ Teenage Head which remain firm favourites thirty plus years after first reading about them. It included Gene Clark’s No Other and Big Star’s Radio City which were not acknowledged as classics for another decade or two.

While it included many of the big hitters and acknowledged classics, what was clear was that the rest of these albums were the real personal favourites of the contributors, the ones that you would fight for.

What we intend to do is write about the 200 or so albums that we would include in our perfect collection. While it would be tempting to only include records recorded since the books publication, it may include what we would consider glaring omissions from the original book. Like the book, if an artist has two albums of equal artistic merit, an alternative  choice will be denoted with an ‘a’. Various artist compilation were not included in the book, and will not be included here (sorry Nuggets et al) We have tried to avoid the bigger names and shine a light on those names that don’t usually figure in best of lists.

Dedicated to

Tom Hibbert, Andy Schwartz, Brian Hogg, Bill Knight, Chris Charlesworth, C. P. Lee, Chris Welch, Fran Kershner, Giovanni Dadomo, Harry, Shapiro, Ian Birch, John Tobler, Kerry King, Michael Heatley, Mike McDowell, Martin Plimmer, Mark Williams, Nigel Cross, Neville Wiggins, Peter Clark, Patrick Humphries, Paddy Poltock, Paul Whitcombe, Stephen Lee, Sally Payne.