Clearlake – Cedars

Clearlake
Cedars

It’s sort of a shame that there isn’t more theater in indie rock. The underground music scene is not only devoid of publicized dramas, but there are precious few bands capable of creating a bombastic, showy sound that can shift imaginations as well as bob heads. Benjamin Gibbard may be an outstanding lyricist, but his stories lack the wide-screen ambition of a steamy soul ballad or a ridiculous, overproduced rocker. Now, many of you would argue that this is a good thing: who needs that over-dramatized bullshit anyway? “Give me something I can relate to!” you shout. Fine fine. But you’re missing out. Because every once in a while, you need to be hit over the head.
Clearlake, a British quartet, is awfully good at delivering these sort of knockouts. The band has an uncanny knack for transporting the listener, putting them in a mood or situation that leaves subtlety completely behind, instead favoring over-the-top character and emotions. This is not to say that Clearlake’s music is fake or somehow not genuine. Quite the opposite, in fact: singer/guitarist Jason Pegg seems as sincere as they come. That being said, his vocals are somehow infinitely more theatric than your average indie frontman. His voice is strong and loud, arching up and back down again with a clarity most singers couldn’t fathom.
Though Pegg’s vocals are the focal point of most songs, his bandmates do an admirable job of framing his voice. Equally capable of snotty guitar bursts and serene, pattering ballads, they specialize in the sort of art-rock that Brits before them – Radiohead, the Verve – turned into expansive, captivating masterpieces.
The album opens with the speedy, melodic riffing of “Almost the Same,” with an impressive rhythmic push as tiny stabs of guitar echoing Pegg’s even wail. “Wonder If the Snow Will Settle” is a masterful, martial ballad, and when Pegg croons “I wonder if the snow will settle on the ground this year / I wonder if losing you was such a good idea / I can’t seem to remember the last time that it snowed “round here,” it carries all the weight of an actor traversing a tiny stage, battling with decisions, each one magnified by the solidarity of his voice.
“Keep Smiling” is a nice change of pace, its uplifting lyrics contrasting gorgeously with the cynical pluck of the guitars behind them. “I’d Like to Hurt You” is by far the band’s most dramatic moment. Pegg assumes the role of a sympathetic assaulter, warning his victim out of love and compassion, yet unable to stop himself. The music is spectacular, highlighted by a cascading guitar line the sounds as evil and confused as the narrator. “The Mind is Evil” is a similar jaunt. Pegg sounds arrogant, unable to admit his wrongs but finding nothing better to blame them on than his mind. It sounds like a smoother Tom Waits waltzing his way through a half-hearted apology letter. The album closes on a sympathetic note, with the psychedelic guitar haze of “Treat Yourself With Kindness” bleeding into “Trees in the City,” an undeniably pretty hymn that finally forgives, cleanses, and moves on.
Clearlake hasn’t quite moved into Radiohead/Verve territory yet, but on Cedars, only the second album, the band leaps much closer. Pegg’s strong, confident croon sounds majestic over the band’s baroque pop arrangements, and the results are often stunning. A lot has been made in this review over the theatric tone, but all that would be meaningless without strong songwriting, which Clearlake has in spades. This is one of the most unique, inviting, and ultimately thrilling song cycles released this year. Sometimes pop music takes unimaginable, hard-to-cope-with experiences and humanizes them. Cedars does the opposite, taking very real, mundane feelings and experiences and pushing them towards previously unimagined heights. Bravo.