It’ll be interesting to see which turns out to be more influential: Clearlake’s 2003 release Cedars [Domino Records], or Pitchforkmedia writer Brent DiCrescenzo’s widely-read review of the album. If you haven’t encountered either, here’s a nutshell in need of a chew:
DiCrescenzo’s first-on-the-scene synopsis of Cedars, when taken in context, may have been more artistically intact than the album itself. While this is not to say that Cedars isn’t a fine album, the review, proclaiming that Cedars “towers in the tradition of the best British art,” sets expectations unreasonably high. Not that this is Clearlake’s fault. Damn those record critics.
In truth, Cedars does stand out among its peers though this isn’t to say that album won’t seem familiar to you after a few listens. Morrissey comparisons aren’t completely unfair; singer/principle songwriter Jason Pegg has said Morrissey lyrics are his favorite lyrics. However, Cedars’ overall sonic aesthetic is more reminiscent of Depeche Mode sneaking into the Verve’s rehearsal space circa 1993, when the latter group was consumed with A Storm in Heaven. This-meets-that comparisons aside, consider Cedars’ strongest point: its songs.
“Almost the Same” opens the album with a running start. Up-tempo, medium-rare guitars and drums swarm the ears and heart, picking the listener up and promising a dizzying ride. It’s interesting that the track has such a new wave feel, yet is comprised of such raw elements. Pegg’s majestic voice and literate feel rise above all else, clearly setting Clearlake apart from their contemporaries.
“The Mind is Evil” follows and is nothing short of utterly dramatic chamber pop. Opening with a murmur of conversation between piano and circus music keyboards, the song reveals its grandeur in its twelfth second of play, when we’re treated to a string arrangement matched in modern pop only by Rufus Wainwright’s Ravel-inspired “Oh What a World”. Only better.
“I put up a fight but my mind always wins / There’s nothing to do but surrender,” croons Pegg, firmly establishing the thematic basis for Cedars. This is an album concerned with the dark side of human nature, natural instincts thought to be socially unacceptable at best. But Pegg insists that such “demented” nature is not limited to a few whackos with reservations in the Padded Cell Inn. Cedars testifies that evil—at least what we determine to be evil—resides in all of us and can be labeled as such only by norms and laws, but never by nature.
Nowhere is this theme made more apparent than it is on “I’d Like to Hurt You”. Truly a creepy confession, the song is narrated by someone struggling with his own hateful tendencies. The protagonist is sober-minded, civil, and even apologetic to his object of love and hate, warning “I wouldn’t hurt a fly / But I’d really like to punish you.” “Hurt You” sounds like a ditty some madman might hum while sewing together the skin of his victims.
“Come Into the Darkness” stays on course, inviting its “you” to abandon societal expectations and have a cocktail with Freud’s id. Musically, “Darkness” succeeds with a loud/soft dynamic more akin to the Pixies than post-rock. Album curveball “Just Off the Coast” follows, sounding like some British take on American country-blues. The song has a decidedly live sound and its chorus features a terrific vocal melody.
The following track, “Keep Smiling,” is tragically misplaced, as it could have served as a very smart closer for the album. “Smiling” is actually kind of funny, employing sweetly jaded lyrics and a delicate Jim O’Rourke-esque melody.
Cedars is a terrific statement from a very promising band that seems more mature than the sum of their years. This album may not turn out to be the life-changing experience you expect it to be, but don’t let that fool you. Miss this one, and miss out on one of 2003’s best.