A little over a year ago, in September, 2008, I was a groomsman in the wedding of one of my best friends. The fete took place in Sonoma, perhaps the most charming of all California wine country destinations, and it was a weekend to remember—a scorching late summer heat wave turning up the temperature on a reunion that seemed, in retrospect, like a permanent tattoo. A shaggy tilting toward responsibility for a bunch of crazy dreamers still growing up on their own terms.
After the wedding weekend ended, Sara and I, along with our friends Galahad and Hannah, stopped off for a tasting at local stalwart B.R. Cohn, then headed west for Point Reyes, in search of cooler climes, the sea, and that serene summer fog that only the Bay Area can provide.
We commenced on a late Sunday afternoon, around 4pm or so, and to this day that drive remains one of the most satisfyingly memorable of my life. As we wound on curving roads out of Sonoma towards Petaluma, past hill after hill of vineyards giving their last bows to the brutal, dying sun--only a month before harvest, at the peak of their ripeness and flavor and strength--all four of us sat in stoned, happy silence at the splendor of it all: friendship, love, cows, grapes, all of it ripening, changing, one season becoming another, one climate giving way to another, one view endlessly reshaping itself, in perpetuity.
Our soundtrack music for that drive was the UK’s The Clientele, and to this day, whenever Sara and I take a road trip to a particularly stunning locale, we keep them on theheavy rotation shortlist. Especially in wine country. Somehow they seem to perfectly capture the blend of natural energy and mellow reflection that falls on you in any wine region where people spend their time so close to the soil, to nature, to rhythmic patterns of life, musical in their repetition.
But there is also a darker, more visceral element to The Clientele’s songs that matches the wine country vibe: a psychedelic, hard dream, acid-tinged quality that keeps you looking over your shoulder for the demon hiding there. A recognition that, despite the holistic grace of devoting yourself to sunshine and growing things, at the end of the day you remain forever a child of the moon and Dionysus, a sylvan satyr at home in the rituals of the grove, of the vine—perpetual frenemy of that old goat, Bacchus.
The weird, menacing 60s British psychedelic element is more understated in 2007’s, God Save the Clinetele. While maintaining every element of their signature sound—reverb guitars, shivery, intimate vocals, and lush unexpected string sections, the album manages to refine their music in a more grown-up, subtly articulate way.
Recorded in Nashville, God Save the Clientele possesses the same earthy rawness that infused Cash, Kristofferson and the Louvin Brothers, but it’s filtered through a net of lacy orchestration and complex song arrangement. The reverb is kept more in check, but remains a presence throughout, now aged, like a lone speaker in a massive, oak-paneled English manor hall.
The song order is carefully arranged to create an evolving, almost imperceptible upbeat movement. The album opens with a batch of mellow, ruminative, autumnal—though still gorgeous—odes and ballads that deal with lost loves; unexpected epiphanies; and restless, unfulfilled desires (“I Hope I Know You,” “Isn’t Life Strange,” “From Brighton Beach to Santa Monica”).
In the middle it builds starting with the full-blown “Winter on Victoria Street,” the country-esque steel-pedal twang of the broken-heart ballad “Queen of Seville,” and the unusual up-tempo rhythm and Byrds-like guitar washes of Side B’s “Somebody Changed.”
By the time “Bookshop Casanova” echoes the Beatles with its command, “You got my name, look up my number,” we can hardly believe we’re in a full-blood rock song. The tempo gets even wilder with the short, trippy “The Garden at Night,” before winding down gracefully with “Dreams of Leaving.”
There is something in this album, call it melancholy or bittersweet, that is more expressive of the happiness of a deliberately unrealized dream. After all, if all dreams came true, what would one fantasize about in their purest lonely moments? The whispered vocals waft like an inland sea breeze, redolent of salt and wet rope and satisfying gurgle of an oar breaking the plane of water.
God Save the Clientele is the musical equivalent of looking up from the small green patio of an oyster bar tangled deep in dense city backstreets and watching a seagull soar.
THE CLIENTELE GOD SAVE THE CLIENTELE, 2007, Merge Records