What is soul?

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"Something indefinable," says the Clientele's vocalist/guitarist/lyricist Alasdair Maclean. "It's the hairs on the back of the neck thing."

The Clientele make soul music for those who don't believe in a soul. Would it be impudent to suggest you listen to the Clientele on weekend mornings instead of going to your usual place of worship? (As if our readers actually practiced religion...) Because no matter your creed, you can find consolation—and maybe even spiritual transcendence—in the Clientele's lethargically cathartic songs.

Whispers trump screams in the Clientele's world. In fact, the London trio have made this the guiding principle of their eight-year career. Creating great, enduring, quiet rock is one of the hardest things to do in music, and few today do it better than the Clientele.

The group have released three albums—singles collection Suburban Light (2001), The Violet Hour (2003), and Strange Geometry (2005)—that gently swirl dozens of variations of that dewy, jingle-jangle guitar sound to which you've swooned while spinning Galaxie 500 and Felt platters. Further, almost every Clientele song seems to reference the Youngbloods' '60s anthem "Get Together" (lines from that song—"We are but a moment's sunlight/Fading in the grass"—capture the sublime evanescence of Maclean's lyrics).

He might disagree with the Youngbloods comparison, but Maclean admits to a lifetime infatuation with pop music.

"I heard 'Eleanor Rigby' when I was 5 years old and it was like my world turned upside down," Maclean recalls. "I summoned my friends and told them when we formed a band it would sound like this, at which point I remember they seemed totally disgusted. I grew up listening to pop songs: the Carpenters, Neil Diamond, all those early McCartney ballads about moons and Junes, and they infected my musical DNA far more than indie bands, which I discovered much later. I also played Spanish guitar as a kid, which I loved, but which seemed to me totally at odds with pop music. Then I heard [Love's] Forever Changes and my world turned upside down again—the two had been combined perfectly already."

Thus inspired, Maclean, bassist James Hornsey, and drummer/pianist Mark Keen began to forge their own pop songs in the second half of the '90s. They immediately achieved a timelessness in their lyrics and music beyond the reach of all but a very few bands, a modest grandeur that's unaffected by most of its surroundings.

"Like I say," Maclean reiterates, "my musical education began with classic pop songs, and the basic idea that the music should seduce the listener; they shouldn't have to put in any work at all. So these are hopefully melodies that you can whistle first and foremost, and after that you can work in the arty stuff. There's nothing particularly calculated or rational about it, though. I just try and make music that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up."

The Clientele are like dream-pop monks, working magic in a hermetically sealed universe where the very air is haloed in reverb—especially Maclean's yearning vocals. "I think it's a beautiful sound," Maclean asserts, "the sound of distance, of memory. I had my hand slapped every time I touched the reverb dial on [Strange Geometry], though, [so] my voice is pretty dry on it."

Strange Geometry was recorded after the band moved to London from Fleet, and the capital worked its diabolical magic on Maclean's songwriting. "It's made it darker, more cramped and pessimistic, capable of imagining more horrible things. I listen to the first Clientele album now and it's all choirboy innocence."

With Strange Geometry, the band for the first time enlisted outsiders to meddle with their sound. Brian O'Shaughnessy produced and Louis Philippe arranged and conducted a four-piece string section. Their efforts subtly enhance the Clientele's understated glory.

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"Louis added a touch of aristocratic magic to the record, and Brian had a very steady pair of hands [that] kept everything under control," Maclean says. "He wouldn't allow any dissonance or improvisation in his studio; everything had to be worked out in advance, which suited what we were trying to do as a pop record. It meant everything was fresh, it was all done in one or two takes, and we just concentrated on playing as fluently and beautifully as we could."

Trust the hairs on the back of your neck.