Small-label bands are like ghosts, borderland entities haunting the periphery of the musical landscape. These wayward souls produce albums that are but faint impressions, evaporating as quickly as hot breath on a window. Concerts are sightings, convincingly real yet short-lived, with no promise of ever repeating. Without a celebrity imprimatur, like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! and David Bowie, or Wolf Parade and Isaac Brock, or even Sigur Rós and Tommy Lee—I kid (sort of)—many of these bands would never be heard. Many are never heard anyway.
The Clientele, a trio from London, languishes in just such a purgatorial haze. Having played together since 1997, they approach their ethereal chamber pop with retro swagger, drawing ill-advised comparisons to Scotland’s Belle & Sebastian and rather less ill-advised comparisons to Galaxie 500 and the Zombies. Both Suburban Light (2001), a collection of singles, and The Violet Hour (2003), their first full-length album, were hallmarks of the genre—a full, distinctive, contemplative sound anchored (or perhaps not) by dreamy arpeggios and foggy vocals. Not much has changed with Strange Geometry (Merge), their most recent effort, which upon first listen is a boon, then later becomes a curse. The album is an enjoyable, mildly frustrating pastiche of the band’s own oeuvre. The insidious track “E.M.P.T.Y.” pretty much captures it: It starts off well enough, with Alasdair MacLean singing plaintively, “When the night air comes to me / I wonder if the days I’ve lived through count,” which elicits an empathetic pang from the listener. Then the chorus answers “E-M-P-T-Y,” and the listener has been put down by the cheerleading squad for the damned.
Strange Geometry is discomfiting in its complacency. The new songs blend into the old ones, confusing their original brilliance and muddying one’s perception of the band. They’ve added water to a perfect glass of lemonade: It still tastes good, but not as good as you remember.
And then there’s Minus Story, a band as delightfully surprising as it is obscure—in brief, still a ghost. The Captain Is Dead, Let the Drum Corpse Dance!, their first album on Jagjaguwar—a small label with impressively good, if not exotic, taste out of Bloomington, Ind.—was a mini-masterpiece of lo-fi psych-pop. It was underrated and made little headway. One suspects this is because trying to place Minus Story in some kind of canon is about as hard as finding their hometown of Boonville, Mo. It’s a process of triangulation and relative distance. Their small hamlet is either 105 miles east of Kansas City, a three-hour drive from St. Louis or just north of Springfield. Likewise, Minus Story’s lead singer, Jordan Geiger, is either a stone’s throw away from the reedy, nasal timbre of the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy or a town over from Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel.
The Captain Is Dead peeled from one rollicking dirge to another, hardly pausing to take stock of the genres it laid to waste. Minus Story had nicknamed their recording style “Wall of Crap”—almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Conversely, their newest album, No Rest for Ghosts (Jagjaguwar), is a more subdued, production-heavy affair, with the band smoothly sliding from one reference to the next. “I Was Hit,” the album’s first track, begins just east of the Decemberists, than heads north to Radiohead with an acoustic/electric hybrid bridge reminiscent of “Paranoid Android.” What keeps Minus Story from sounding derivative, however, is their subtle, even gentle approach to a manifestly bizarre morbidity.
The album’s tone is best summed up by a story told by Mr. Geiger in an online interview: “Driving through some mountains in Pennsylvania at about 4 in the morning, while everyone was asleep, [guitarist] Andy [Byers] and I came around this corner and saw a deer sitting on the side of the road in the headlights of a state trooper’s car. It had a huge bloody hole in its stomach with innards coming out. It was licking at the wounds. It was really fucked up, but beautiful in a weird way.”
Minus Story are consumed by the shadow zone between life and death, the transformation of the corporeal into the chimerical. Similarly, their sound slips in and out of familiar hooks and melodies. This transience, as it applies both to the human condition and to their music, can be gruesome and melancholy. “Little Wet Head,” a deceptively peppy pop song that describes in gory detail a parent being devoured by its progeny, is horrifyingly visceral. “Choke me down / Push me out,” repeats the up-tempo chorus to a soaring piano punctuated by jubilant hand-clapping.
Now that’s fucked up!
On the other end of the spectrum is “There Is a Light,” a melodic waltz, sweetly sung. Mr. Geiger, apparently in spiritual form, comforts the living: “There is a song you hear when you die / No clapping of hands or voices on high / But out of the dark the voice will arise / So close to my ear / My old lovers sigh.”
Beautiful … in a weird way.