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The surreal life

Heightened sensory perspective is driving force behind music of British band Clientele

It always seems to be raining softly inside a song by the Clientele. A shaft or two of amber light may slant across a verse or a melody and linger for a moment, but what scant sun peeks through the British band's melancholic skies usually precedes the next inevitable poetic downpour. The cumulative sensory effect -- a sort of saturnine, wistful ache that suffuses the music -- makes the Clientele singer-guitarist Alasdair MacLean very happy. He enjoys, he says, capturing "that feeling of things slipping past."

In fact, the group's almost fetishistic preoccupation with the subjects of time, seasons, and the elements has haunted its music ever since the release of 2000's "Suburban Light," its critically lauded first album that was actually a compilation of the Clientele's early singles. The band's latest album, "The Violet Hour," which came out this summer to instant raves (they'll play T.T. the Bear's Place Monday), expands on those themes with even greater delicacy and sophistication. Arrangements are fashioned from interwoven threads of glistening guitar, pastel washes of percussion, and cavernous chambers of echo and reverb, transforming MacLean's dewy sigh of a voice to liquid glass. Again, slanted and enchanted songs about strolling through secluded churchyards, hidden lanes, and vanishing moments are the order of the day.

"All of the band members grew up in very suburban, dead-end areas, and there's that sense of airlessness in the suburbs," says MacLean by phone from London, referring to the Clientele drummer Mark Keen and bassist James Hornsey, respectively. The inchoate desire, discontent, and reservoir of memory that tugs at compositions such as "When You and I Were Young" and "Everybody's Gone," it seems, was built into the band's psyche from the start.

"Everybody does things very intensely, whether it's making music or vandalizing property, because there's nothing else to do," MacLean says. "And with that, you get a paradoxical sense of longing, because you see lives and aspirations on the TV all the time that just can't fit your reality. It really breeds this strange, surreal feeling. That sense of disconnectedness really has haunted me, and the way I've always tried to explain it is through music."

This kind of heightened sensory perspective, MacLean says, has much to do with the group's admiration for the work of surrealist artist Joseph Cornell. "The most basic thing about surrealism is that it's found in the everyday," MacLean says. Cornell "was finding very beautiful things and very incongruous things in the everyday flotsam and jetsam of life. That's really what our music is about, too."

Indeed, MacLean's favorite track, "Voices in the Mall," recaptures the sensation he had as a teenager taking a weekend trip to a sparkling new suburban shopping complex with his mother. "It just seemed very beautiful, this kind of yellow light spilling out everywhere, and the music, and the people talking," he recalls. "That feeling always stayed with me."

Initially, more fans in America seemed to embrace the Clientele's impressionistic approach than did listeners in England. When "Suburban Light" was released, for instance, publications such as Time Out New York called the Clientele "one of pop music's best kept secrets." It's sister publication overseas, Time Out London, meanwhile, apparently had no idea who or what the Clientele was. Even the band's label, Merge Records, is based in North Carolina, and run by the Chapel Hill indie-rock band Superchunk. Steady touring, however, and the glowing press surrounding the release of "The Violet Hour" has raised the trio's profile. "Even [the British music magazine New Musical Express] gave us a really good review, which shocked me, you know?" MacLean says with a laugh. "So we've kind of come out of our doldrums of being a prophet everywhere except our hometown."

When he first heard the Clientele's music, Superchunk singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan wasn't sure what to think. The small independent label could only afford to put out a fraction of even the best stuff that hit its radar. Besides, they were a British band, and Merge had scarce financial resources to bring groups overseas to tour. But the songs continued to tug at him anyway.

"I just kept going back to it, and the more we listened, the more we realized how unique it was and just how good those songs are," McCaughan says.

An early British label pressing of "Suburban Light" reminded McCaughan of his high school years, when he'd scour record bins for hard-to-find treasures.

"This record struck me as that kind of record. It would hook you in and promote obsessive listening," he says.

"The Violet Hour" is much more musically nuanced and subtly adventuresome than its predecessor. There are, for example, shades of the Velvet Underground's darkly inquisitive brand of instrumental exploration that MacLean believes is the difference between fledgling musicians and a fully integrated, intuitive live unit that's played together for six years now. "The first gigs we played were humiliating. We could tell how awful it sounded," MacLean remembers. "But it does take awhile to learn how to listen and to predict how another musician is going to play, and I think that has gradually happened."

The other thing that happened was that instead of merely taking their cues from the pop artists whose work informed "Suburban Light" -- Love, the Zombies, Galaxie 500, Felt -- the trio began devouring jazz albums by Archie Shepp, Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, and John Coltrane. They listened to the ebb and flow of the rhythm sections, and marveled at their fluidity and elasticity.

"What we really wanted to do was capture that feeling of flowing," MacLean says. "I can't claim that I play the guitar as well as Pharoah Sanders plays the sax, but in our own humble way, we were trying to use a lot of the ideas they did. It would take a lifetime to learn how to play like them, anyway."

Still, there's an intangible, enigmatic quality to the Clientele's music that can't be deciphered by a simple formula. MacLean claims there's no big mystery. "The only thing I need to write is quiet and a Dictaphone, and a Spanish guitar, and a certain type of contemplative hangover," he says. "Those are the four ingredients to a Clientele song. And I think having given away that secret, anyone can write Clientele songs now. It's not that hard."

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