The Clientele Bonfires on the Heath

[Merge; 2009]

Styles: psych/chamber/60s/dream/indie pop
Others: The Zombies, Nick Drake, Belle and Sebastian, Felt, Galaxie 500

The Clientele’s latest and rumored-to-be-last album comes timed perfectly to the season, when imagining the kids setting Bonfires on the Heath makes perfect sense after a long summer of beach pop. “Late October sunlight in the wood/ Nothing here quite moves the way it should,” sings Alaisdair MacLean on the title track. The band’s signature pre-Beatles pop vibe is, as always, dreamy and relaxing, like — oh, say — a Tuesday release date in October?

The instrumental arrangements often come soaked in soft disco, like Belle and Sebastian channeling the Bee Gees, nowhere more so than on “Share the Night,” which even comes with some uncharacteristically fuzzed-out lead guitar. Opener “I Wonder Who We Are” and “Never Saw Them Before” share the sensation, more reminiscent of classic psych-soul and Bacharach-era pop. There even almost seems to be a shade of Os Mutantes-style Latin psychedelia lurking around the corner of some songs.

Despite the minor new stylistic flourishes, however, it's easy to imagine The Clientele getting bored with such a specific mission and such consistent delivery over the course of their 12-year career. The band's deliberately throwback, minutely polished music has always evoked a kind of stasis, a world of lush pop kept under glass for the past 50 years. If the breakup rumors are true, it makes sense that the band should finally be showing signs of restlessness, such as on the aimless, self-referential rocker “Sketch” or their last album's manic, upbeat instrumental “The Garden At Night.” While it's foolish to read too much imagined band biography into these tunes, Bonfires is the sound of The Clientele stretching ever so slightly at the rigid bounds of their self-sealed time capsule.

Although a fair number of the songs are too gauzy to stick in your ears very long after the fact, Bonfires is still a supremely pleasurable visceral listening experience as it blows through your head. The early-EP compilation Suburban Light remains the most concentrated burst of their aesthetic, and Strange Geometry may have the most melodic highs, but Bonfires is certainly a step up on its efficient, bloodless predecessor God Save The Clientele and stands up no matter what’s next for the band.

1. I Wonder Who We Are
2. Bonfires on the Heath
3. Harvest Time
4. Never Anyone But You
5. Jennifer & Julia
6. Sketch
7. Tonight
8. Share the Night
9. I Know I'll See Your Face
10. Never Saw Them Before
11. Graven Wood
12. Walking In the Park

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