The Chicago-based band sounds more consistent—but also more risk-averse—than ever on a guitar-driven album that's as peaceful and unchallenging as its title suggests.
A wave of textural innovation is sweeping the indie guitar realm, as bands vying to get ahead of a pack led by Tame Impala and the War on Drugs stack effects in pursuit of novel sounds. But Clearance are sitting out this race. As far as the Chicago-based band is concerned, no newfangled gimmick can beat two electric guitars backed by a little inspiration and the support of a skilled rhythm section. They proudly stand ‘neath the marquee moon, come alive at animal midnight, and abide by forces at work.
Clearance certainly have the chops for this unadorned yet deceptively difficult style of composition: “Walking Papers,” from their first 7", 2013’s Dixie Motel Two-Step, applied a light touch to cloudy chords. “Total Closeout,” the centerpiece of their 2015 debut LP, Rapid Rewards, was a long, ascendant swirl of riffs whipped up by frontman Mike Bellis and guitarist Kevin Fairbairn, with bassist Greg Obis and drummer Arthur Velez confidently spotting them as they climbed. But on their second proper LP, At Your Leisure, Clearance avoid such epic instrumental journeys to focus on the fundamentals of songwriting: Every track is short, sweet, and complete. It’s their most consistent record to date, if also their most risk-averse.
Lead single “Destination Wedding” opens in sheepish, shuffling fashion, then finds confidence midway through in a series of ringing, sustained notes. Rather than luxuriate in this comfortable arrangement, the band cuts off the song before it can wander into extended-jam-outro territory. “Another Arrow” is the only track that messes around with tempo, playing a game of red-light-green-light with Bellis and Fairbairn’s guitars. The standout “Haven’t You Got the Time?” sparkles with the clarity of a Mediterranean lagoon. Bellis finds his gold note, takes the opportunity to open his throat wider, and enters Liam Gallagher territory with some long “i” sounds that he happily stretches for an extra second.
Like Doug Martsch of Built to Spill, Bellis tends to subjugate his vocals to the guitars, letting the instruments capture each song’s shifts in emotion. He doesn’t raise, push, or twist his voice. Instead, he confines it to a single mood: mild and patient, as if he’s working through complex feelings but has all the time in the world to do so. Bellis’ musings meander and get sidetracked, like reflections in the mind of a zoned-out dreamer, and his metaphors don’t always cohere; the album’s lyrics are so swathed in an ambiguity that they can come off as both impersonal and overly safe. Lines like “Was my invitation lost to your destination wedding?” and “I had a fantastic dream about the coastline” certainly don’t compete with the interplay of the guitars. This lyrical blandness keeps a well-deserved spotlight on the music, but it also limits the payoff of the band’s strongest compositions.
Not that Clearance ever promised to change our lives. At Your Leisure is exactly what its title advertises: a collection of pared-down songs that sound peaceful and welcoming, like a room full of humble yet comfortable furniture. As a testament to the electric guitar’s capacity for communicating when words fail us, the album is persuasive, even if it never crosses over into transcendence.
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