Bonfires on the Heath (Merge, 2009)
One sad thing about the Clientele: Nobody seems to like them. While critics love the brit-dream-psych-poppers, it’s tough to find a real fan of the band anywhere in day-to-day music-lover circles. Seeing the group open up for Spoon a few years back, I remember they actually got some heckling from an impatient audience member who came to rock out, not...er...fall asleep. In a way, this makes some sense. Because the band’s sound is light, airy, and laid-back, by nature the music doesn’t jump out and smack listeners upside the head. Nine out of ten Clientele songs are almost too easy to listen to. They’re generally soft, reserved, wildly inoffensive, and the group tends to play a lot of ballads.
Ironically, these are all the same reasons the Clientele are a fantastic band, but it’s only half the story. While it’s a simple task to play one of their records on a cool fall night, and let their lovely arpeggios and delicate strings lull you into sweet slumber, it’s equally as easy to get intensely lost in the band’s subtle technique: the way the bass and guitar grapple for harmonic dominance a-la Galaxie 500; the jazzy, augmented and diminished chord voicings; or Alasdair MacLean’s often brilliant, Keats-ean reflections.
It’s all here in spades on Bonfires on the Heath, the band’s fourth proper long-player (fifth, if you count the excellent singles collection, Suburban Light). As such, the new record probably won’t win over any naysayers, even though it stands as one of the group’s strongest efforts to date in an already impressive catalog. It’s a frustrating thing when talent goes unappreciated, but Bonfires is a record that finds a band well-settled into its niche, while unearthing new ways to explore an already rock-solid, established sound. It does so by adding instruments, voices, and a fresh batch of outside influences to its repertoire, somehow filling out the quartet’s harmony while gently retaining its mysterious draw and openness.
The first thing you’ll notice is the addition of trumpets to the band’s ensemble. On album opener “I Wonder Who We Are,” this may not be the best thing; MacLean’s “Bah Ba-Da Ba-Ba-Ba-Dah” percussive vocals are admittedly a bit cringe-worthy as the song bounces along in happy-go-lucky fashion. Later on, however, the trumpets lend a helping hand to the Latin-flavored “I Know I’ll See Your Face,” easily the most exciting track on the album with its light syncopation, bossa nova feel, thrilling turn-arounds and elegant classical guitar work.
Not a new addition, but strengthened and used perhaps to greater effect than on the band’s previous album, God Save the Clientele, is the prominence of pianist Mel Draisy. Her beautiful melodic motifs fill in the spaces between MacLean’s phrases, musically manifesting the vivid dreamscapes the singer finds himself lost in. Her voice is the perfect counter to MacLean’s as his smoky tenor and her breathy alto wrap around each other with a pastoral beauty that feels timeless.
Predictably, the album slows down about halfway through as the group wades through soft, flowery ballad territory. These songs, while pretty and heartfelt can get boring with subsequent listens, and are wisely kept brief and broken up by the rousing “Sketch,” an instrumental British-invasion throwback with a driving beat and ecstatic electric guitars. It’s a style that’s come up in just the last couple of Clientele releases, and once again works well for the band. Here, on tracks like “Share the Night,” it allows the sometimes timid-sounding guitarist in MacLean to let loose and rip some serious solos, embellishing the blissed-out psychedelia that has come to define the band’s catalog.
For the bulk of the album, though, Bonfires is at its best when drawing on the the hazy, autumnal melancholy of 2003’s The Violet Hour. And speaking of autumn, from now on the Clientele are simply not allowed to release another album in any other month but October. Yes, there is a track called “Harvest Time,” and the music itself has a crisp air to it; not icy, freezing cold or anything extreme like that, but just chilly. You can almost see MacLean’s whispy breath emanating from your speakers in a soft cloud. It’s also the time of year when the days grow shorter and sleepier, and lyrics lend to this feeling as well. He’s almost sleepwalking through these 12 tracks. “I cannot tell you what I saw / I was somebody else,” MacLean laments on “Never Saw Them Before,” tricking himself by bringing otherworldly hallucinations into his waking state.
The album’s timing may also have a connection to the notion that Bonfires may be the band’s swan song, as MacLean has sadly hinted at in interviews. The reverb-drenched, surreal texture of the music evokes vivid images of memories long past, bringing them back to life in creepy dream-sequence stanzas set in familiar places. “Kids are jumping bonfires on the heath / How am I going to get myself to sleep?” sings MacLean on the title track, haunted with youthful ghosts of his own past,“Laughing windows up and down the hall, and the walls are closing in on me.” It’s a season of penultimate change, a no-turning-back point as the vivid greens slowly fade to hushed reds and browns, mocked by the exuberance of a life before it, and confronted with death ahead. While Bonfiresis another prime example of a wonderful band doing wonderful things, it hardly feels final or like a defining statement in any way. Here’s hoping for more beautiful music from the Clientele in many autumns to come.