Studying 'A Photograph Inside A Printed Night'

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Firmly premised on the melancholy and wonder associated with the knife-edge of the present, The Clientele's music also heavily relies on memory.

While their music is thoroughly steeped in the complex and cascading melodies of Love and Felt, as well as in the atmospherics of Galaxie 500 and the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, what makes The Clientele unique among those associated with the current renaissance of 1960s pop is their refreshingly unironic use of this vocabulary: Rather than adopting the melodic patterns of 1960s music as if to say, "How funny those days were," they use it to say, with a perfectly stylized seriousness, "How wonderful and strange is the past."

Alasdair Maclean, the band's primary songwriter, has a remarkable talent for putting life back into cliché, for taking tired, formulaic situations and making them suggestive and powerful again. For instance, in any other hands "when I saw your eyes what could I do?/ what could I say, my love?/ your kisses they will hide away the stars" would normally come off as pure schmaltz. But Maclean purifies the cliché of metaphysics, reducing it to impression, then reanimates it with metaphor.

Listening to their music is like entering an antique shop where one could expect to find Joseph Cornell (the famous American surrealist after whom the band name a song) rummaging for his (not yet) found objects. Like Cornell, the band searches through fragments of memory-for Cornell curious items, for The Clientele the record of their daily impressions-to put pieces of their world together in unique and surprising ways.

This search even becomes a model for the way in which they take apart and reassemble their musical precedents, the way they look through their record collections and make something completely new and entirely their own, yet reminiscent of something else. But throughout their music there is that haunting sense of "Have I been here before?"

Most, if not all, of their songs are narrated in the present tense as they record time, place, and sights: Unlike Cornell's perfectly organized, preserved and fetishized collections of ephemera, Maclean's imagination is obsessed with reality's perpetual flux and motion, its incapacity to hold still. For Maclean, Cornell's captured birds are still in flight.

Many of their songs seem spontaneously to generate from lazy walks in the English suburbs, dreams on a park bench and other moments of emptiness that impressionistically expand, open and turn upon seemingly meaningless circumstances: the time of day, the weather, the feeling of the past weighing on the present. The sheer contingency of these circumstances creates a sense that the songs could occur anywhere and at anytime, despite their meticulously detailed setting-a truly paradoxical form of universality.

Though the band has already provoked a considerable amount of publicity and admiring (if guardedly so) reviews, they have not yet released a proper studio album. There is, however, an impressive compilation of singles dating back to 1997 titled "Suburban Light," two EPs ("A Fading Summer," and "The Lost Weekend"), as well as a handful of other singles. Already recorded, their first studio album is due for release in the coming months.

"Suburban Light" is a natural starting point for anyone new to the band, since it contains their strongest material (though "A Fading Summer" comes in a very close second), particularly the first eight or so songs.

On "Reflections After Jane," a wonderful meditation on the

fragility of time, the singer looks out his bedroom window, and the sights and details of the day fill his mind in the most impressionistic way. They appear and pass without anything resembling analysis, drifting into and out of his consciousness like a procession of photographs, like a butterfly floating through air. As he sings "On the bridge the workers pass/ in threes and fours and fives/ to my sleeplessness," the softly rhythmic enunciation suggests a downy lullaby, an attempt to dissolve his sleeplessness into sleep.

The entire song rests on this moment of dissolution, where his impressions of the day magically fall apart and recombine into new impressions. Just as Maclean's subdued, slurred and reverb-drenched vocals ensure that the lyrics of the song lie just outside comprehension, the meaning of the singer's impressions collapses into evocative vagueness. In a surprising surrealistic touch, the final lyric reframes the present-tense reflections as memory: "I have starved my mind into a deep blue sleep/ remembering reflections after Jane." The singer now looks through two windows, one in front of the other.

The next song, "We Could Walk Together," features a guitar-driven melody that is as stunning and addictive as it is complex. It drifts and weaves through the song, bridging one verse to the next as it chimes with the deepest sense of expectation and promise. The lyrics are no less remarkable. In yet another instance of his fascination with surrealist metaphor, Maclean sings, "Like a silver ring thrown into the flood of my heart/ with the moon high above the motorway/ I have searched for all your fragrance in the silent night," while "Night" is overdubbed with "Dark," a touch probably borrowed from Love. Impossible to describe here, this verse, and indeed the entire song, comes with a kind of magical power.


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