Every art form, in every era, has its great lost talents. Individuals blessed with sublime ability that somehow, for reasons often hard to quantify, fail to connect with the wider audience their work so richly deserves. Sometimes the next generation can be more amenable. Take for example The Velvet Underground. During their recording career Lou Reed, John Cale et al never even made it into the Billboard Top 100 albums (best showing, a meagre 129 for The Velvet Underground and Nico), yet within a couple of decades they were revered as one of the most influential rock acts of all time.
Comparing Hampshire’s The Clientele to such giants of the past may seem pure hyperbole, with the odds of them achieving Velvets-like legendary posthumous status admittedly pretty long. Yet those in on the secret will get the point. For the past 15 years, this largely unknown group, led by singer-songwriter Alasdair Maclean, have quietly assembled a back catalogue of such sublime loveliness it’s hard to think of another British band of recent vintage who can match them when it comes to perfectly formed, melancholy guitar pop.
Formed as far back as 1991, it took The Clientele until 2000 to release their first album, the compilation of singles Suburban Light. A record of effortless, shimmering beauty, it established the ingredients they would go on to deploy with consistent brilliance over the ensuing decade and more; hazy but intricate guitar arpeggios and a wonderfully subtle rhythm section providing a hauntingly atmospheric backdrop to Maclean’s whispered, poetic vocals. Imagine a soundtrack for being sat alone in a room late at night savouring a glass of fine wine, with the soft light of the moon glowing over the empty street outside, and you will have some idea of the unique quality this very special group possess.
Whittling down The Clientele’s six albums and numerous singles and EPs to an 11 track Best Of was never going to be an easy task, but by and large Alone And Unreal does the job well, with all stages of their career represented. Early favourites like the almost unbearably gorgeous, gentle psychedelia of Reflections After Jane and the hypnotic We Could Walk Together (which bizarrely recalls the James Bond theme music in its final notes) are joined by later, more conventional up tempo pop like When K Got Over Me and Bookshop Casanova. We get blissful love songs (The Queen Of Seville), wistful reminiscing (the spoken word delight that is Losing Haringey) and marvellously evocative orchestration (Never Anyone But You). There’s even one (almost) new song – 2014’s On A Summer Trail – which although arguably the weakest thing here, is nevertheless evidence that The Clientele still have plenty left to give.
Alone And Unreal serves as an excellent introduction to The Clientele’s music, but for existing aficionados it may be tinged with a slight sense of disappointment. Selecting favourite tracks by any artist is of course a very personal thing, yet the lack of airtime given to The Violet Hour, widely considered to be the group’s finest album (only one track, Missing, is included here) will undoubtedly irk some, while the absence of the sensational Saturday, in this reviewer’s humble opinion the finest four minutes The Clientele have ever produced, is quite simply a criminal oversight. With a couple of judicious tweaks to the song choices, this retrospective could have been truly great rather than simply very, very good.