learlake’s 2003 album Cedars was a moment of freshness in an increasingly stale British music scene. Aside from the developing ‘grime’ scene, spearheaded by The Streets and Dizzee Rascal, and wayward trends like neo-hair-metal (the Darkness) and mascara-stained dance-pop (Goldfrapp), Brit-Pop itself was in a state of stasis. Clearlake proved itself one of the most promising young bands who actually still used guitars.
Recorded with Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins, the band layered their darkly luminous lyrics with dense fields of static and reverb. They seemed to suffocate more than drown in their own sound, and the effect gave their music a stuffy, but aspiring quality that partnered well with their morose lyrics. It was often hard to avoid lead singer Jason Pegg’s delight in the dank, but the band, and perhaps especially Raymonde’s deft production touch, buoyed their depth with a gorgeous sense of light and play.
For Amber, the band is without Raymonde. Production touches are instead led by Pegg, Steve Osborne, and Jim Abbiss. How much they can be blamed for the record’s questionable new musical signposts is unclear, but given Amber was recorded by Phill Brown—a man with a history with the leaden psychedelia and rock of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix—it’s worth mentioning
To put it bluntly, Amber steams and burns where Cedars drifted and heaved. The guitars are brought to the fore, and they give it a schizophrenic element not well suited to the band’s bristly songcraft. Instead of wistful ambience, they offer brutality in the way of crude, coarse stadium-riffing. “Good Clean Fun” sounds like the sort of reverbed rock-assault BRMC have been trying, and failing, to make for several years now, while follow-up “Here to Learn” is just bottomless power-strokes and enough distortion to make your hair dry out. “Finally Free,” however, is the weakest track here, and the one whose arrival tipped this from passable to sellable. Founded on a limp bar-rock guitar part and a prominent cowbell (?), it’s beer-belly swagger, the dance and stomp of a band that’s seemingly growing old ahead of its time and wearing too much make-up to hide the fact. I’ve heard better Tom Petty songs, “Jack and Diane” for example.
But the saddest part of this new aggression is that much of Amber gleams with the fractured beauty they showed on Cedars. In fact, the opening trio is as strong as anything on that album, from the sinewy flex of “No Kind of Life” to the unutterable glow of “Getting Light Outside,” the record’s best cut, to the flutters of piano and electronics on the title track. You get misled by the way “You Can’t Have Me” begins to pulse in the strange sway of its strident guitar, or the way “Dreamt that You Died” allows you to see the sky by looking down.
Ultimately, perhaps I’ve gone too far. Clearlake are clearly talented and still capable of making a groundswelling record. Amber, however, is not only not it, but it’s reason to wonder if they’ve lost their own sense of identity in an effort to sell records to pint-swilling British punters—something they’ve alluded to in past interviews as a goal. In other words, consider this an open plea to Simon Raymonde: you can always go home again, sir. Clearlake needs you.