The Subtle, the Sublime

Three indie acts on the same label arrive at Solar Culture--call it MergeFest

Summer may be over, but a promising package concert tour has been waiting for the chill of autumn.

Well-respected indie acts The Clientele, Annie Hayden and the Radar Brothers--each on the Merge Records label and specializing in melancholic and delicate pop-rock--will come to Tucson to play Solar Culture Gallery on Election Day.

Call it MergeFest if you will. My editor did.

The North Carolina-based Merge Records was formed in the summer of 1989 by Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan. It was about the same time they started their influential band Superchunk, so that act's first single was among the label's initial releases.

Since then, Merge has issued a dizzying array of top-quality albums by, among other acts, American Music Club, Spoon, Lambchop, Buzzcocks, The Clean, The Arcade Fire, Dinosaur Jr., The Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Teenage Fanclub, ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Destroyer, M. Ward and Richard Buckner.

Indie-rock royalty, verily. If further proof were necessary, Merge recently announced it will release in early 2006 the first solo album by singer-songwriter Robert Pollard since he dissolved his much-adored group Guided by Voices.

Anyway, the Tucson show's headliner is London-based trio The Clientele. The band is touring to support its third CD, Strange Geometry, released by Merge a few weeks back. These literate fellows play an anachronistic but nonetheless gorgeous brand of psychedelic folk-pop full of chiming, reverb-soaked guitars, dizzying washes of organ, gently rocking lullaby rhythms and atmospheric chamber-string arrangements.

The Clientele's subtle, sublime sound owes much to the talents of singer, songwriter and guitarist Alasdair MacLean, who guides his light tenor, which is tinged with a Northern England burr, through pillowy, hushed melodies and songs concerned--but not obsessed--with the labors of lost love.

Songs such as "Since K Got Over Me," "When I Came Home From the Party," "Geometry of Lawns" and "(I Can Seem to) Make You Mine" invoke the pastoral English countryside and romantic musing, but refrain from druggy soporifics. Well-framed pop structures give the proceedings a timeless quality, with the occasional Tom Verlaine-inspired guitar squall, such as on "E.M.P.T.Y." and "Impossible," displaying backbone.

For good measure, there's a spoken song-story, "Losing Haringey," in the mold of the Velvet Underground's "The Gift." It is, however, mercifully brief.

We hear in The Clientele allusions to such acts as The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Church, Rain Parade and The Posies, but none of the band's tunes smack of outright thievery. A critic for Spin magazine nicely captured the band's sound in the course of writing about its 2003 masterpiece, The Violet Hour: "Aggressively, gratuitously lovely, modernizing the chambery charms of Love's Forever Changes, the Zombies and Galaxie 500."

In this camp, it's tough to imagine higher praise.

Also on the bill will be Annie Hayden, a beguiling singer-songwriter from New Jersey who uses classic pop styles--from the Brill Building era through the Zombies and Moody Blues to Fleetwood Mac--to craft gossamer folk-pop chamber pieces.

A former member of the jangly rock act Spent, Hayden released her solo debut The Rub in 2001. On her latest effort, The Enemy of Love, she forgoes indie/garage conventions for a sophisticated, heavily orchestrated sound to frame her delicate vocals (maybe a cross between the styles of Kristin Hersh and Lisa Loeb) and expansive piano playing.

Neither mewling waif nor growling grrl, Hayden sings with an authority that belies her breathy voice, and behind the keyboard, she aspires not to mellow Ben Folds-style noodling but to the full, robust visions of Todd Rundgren, Randy Newman and Laura Nyro.

The real joy of The Enemy of Love is that--even though upon first play, it sounds like nothing special--close and repeated listening continually reveals new layers of emotional depth and rich musical range.

On the subject of acquired tastes, the Radar Brothers, from Los Angeles, might only be immediately lovable to fans of The Flaming Lips, Brian Wilson's more idiosyncratic wanderings in the late 1960s and, most notably, the comfortably numb musings of Pink Floyd.

This stuff grows on you, too, though--it's trippy and laid-back, conjuring images of the Southern California desert and hinting at its limitless secrets. Fortunately, this effect doesn't feel threatening in a Manson Family sort of way, but rather is intriguing and bewitching in the fashion of vision quests or walkabouts.

The Bros' collective pedigree includes experience in such significant acts as Medicine, The For Carnation and, more recently, Dengue Fever. They've been together for more than a decade, recording several albums for a variety of labels. In 2002, the Radar Brothers found a home at Merge, which released that year's acclaimed And the Surrounding Mountains and offered up The Fallen Leaf Pages this past March.

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