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Great Expectations: The Clientele and Headlights

November 1, 2009

Ed. Note: TBTS’s Great Expectations column discusses the recently released work of artists we love. The column addresses the questions, “Does the work live up to expectations?” and “Is the work a worthy addition to the artist’s canon?”

The ClienteleBonfires on the Heath

For most of this decade, Belle and Sebastian have been busy making jaunty, shallow albums, perhaps to balance the inclusion of their more pensive material in seemingly every movie that focuses on pasty, eloquent white people and their problems. Meanwhile, the Clientele have quietly been amassing their own immensely rewarding catalog of pastoral British folk-pop.

In addition to wanting to dig at them a little, I mention B & S’s recent move from meek navel-gazing to life-of-the-party bounce because “I Wonder Who We Are,” the opening track of the Clientele’s new album Bonfires on the Heath, seems to indicate a similar transformation is forthcoming. Generally, that lightly funky vibe does prevail on Bonfires a little more than on previous masterpieces Strange Geometry and God Save the Clientele. But for every shuffling, bass-heavy (by Clientele standards, anyway) AM-Gold hit like the opener and “Share the Night,” there are several shimmering meditations (the title track, “Tonight,” and others) that sound like no departure at all.

And, from this band at least, “more of the same” is a blessing indeed. Plain and simple, I adore the Clientele. I see them as my generation’s best heirs to the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” legacy of perfectly capturing that peculiar British brand of wry, slightly detached, winking melancholy (sort of a “Life is gray and damp, now let’s have tea” mentality). Bonfires on the Heath does quite a lot to cement that status and enhance the great esteem in which I already held this relatively unsung but magnificent band.


This Champaign, Illinois, band’s 2008 album Some Racing, Some Stopping was one of my favorites of the year. I’m glad I’ve given Wildlife, the 2009 follow-up, some time to grow on me, because after the first listen, I was prepared to chalk it up as a fairly major disappointment.

Some Racing’s slightly murky, reverb-heavy production lent Headlights’ brand of politely noisy indie-pop an air of mysterious distance and an odd timelessness. For example, with only slight tweaking, “Cherry Tulips,” “On April 2,” or “So Much for the Afternoon” could have been a doo-wop era classic—the kind you might hear in 1957, drifting from the bandstand at Coney Island or at a county fair. Other, more standard indie-pop tracks on Some Racing (“Market Girl” and “Catch Them All”) still stood above the pack. Headlights really weren’t doing anything new, but they were doing it better than just about anybody else.

Wildlife isn’t as immediately satisfying, especially in its first half. The lyrical content is especially heavy this time around (some reviews have hinted, unspecifically, at personal difficulties that plagued the band during the recording). The production is generally cleaner on Wildlife, and Headlights end up sounding more conventional and more firmly linked to current trends.

However, the songwriting is still strong, the tendency to cram too many syllables into songs such as “Secretes” notwithstanding. Overall, Wildlife is a fairly exemplary “grower,” and I think I will eventually reach an almost entirely favorable view of the record. It’s not on the level of Headlights’ previous record, but on its own merits, Wildlife is a fine piece of work.  

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