Sunday, July 24, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Client

Get Behind Me, Kate

It was barely a year after the dissolution of Dubstar in the fall of 2000 that the band's vocalist Sarah Blackwood found herself back at in the music business again, only on a much bigger scale than what she was accustomed to before (initially at least).

Having spent a few months wondering what she was going to do next (or possibly wondering if she would still be working in the music business at all), Blackwood had a solution fall into her lap in the form of an urgent phone call for help from keyboardist Kate Holmes.

Once best known as the flute player in the very-briefly-hot 80s pastoral pop band Frazier Chorus, Holmes had been the synth player in the struggling electro-pop duo Technique for the last few years following the breakup of the former act. Now sans a record label thanks to the recent shutdown of Creation Records (many pundits had derided Technique's signing as blatant nepotism due to Holmes being married to Creation label head Alan McGee), Technique had just been given a rather generous break by being asked to perform as the opening act for Depeche Mode on a string of European arena dates.

What at first looked like a much-needed shot in the arm for the duo quickly became a catastrophe in the making as Technique's singing half, Xan Tyler, decided at that point to exit the picture, leaving Holmes in one hell of a tight spot. With less than a week to hire a replacement vocalist and be ready for the first gig, Holmes, knowing that Dubstar was no more, asked Blackwood if she could cover the dates as a replacement for Tyler.

Blackwood accepted the offer, and while on the road, the two became fast friends and a creative partnership quickly blossomed. Demos were recorded and submitted to Depeche Mode keyboardist Andrew Fletcher, who provided encouragement and eventually signed the duo to his newly-minted record label, Toast Hawaii.

Renaming themselves Client and working in near total secrecy from the all-seeing eye of the media, Holmes and Blackwood set to work recording a clutch of cool, brazen, yet very pop-structured songs using only a laptop computer and a 16-track mixer to achieve the final product.

While it was hardly a challenge for any Dubstar fan to figure out who was singing on the band's self-titled debut album, the music around that voice on the record, aside from the preponderance of synths and electronic rhythms, marked a radically different approach than Dubstar's highly polished, hyper-accessible mainstream sound. Most strikingly, Client was a far icier and angular work -- almost robotic and certainly indebted to the sleek, comparatively sparse production style of classic-era Kraftwerk or Human League (witness the dry, remote, yet relentlessly catchy sonics of "Rock N' Roll Machine"). Even Blackwood's singing style was altered slightly from before, as her northern-accented voice felt stripped of it's gentle, affecting yearning and now sounded more clipped, businesslike and coldly sexy than before. Needless to say, Client was pretty big in Germany right off the bat.

Feet Off The Couch! Jesus!In a visual sense, everything about Client's presentation was created to foil any preconceptions people might have based on the previous bands both women had played in before. Holmes and Blackwood didn't use their real names on the album or in any subsequent interviews, hiding instead behind the pseudonyms of Client A and Client B. All promotional photos and videos for Client revealed nothing of who was in the band: either their faces were obscured by special effects in their videos or they were missing entirely in the arty, almost surreal promotional photographs sent out to the media (all of which were deliberately badly cropped so that nothing above shoulder level on the duo was visible). Looking at these images, all a prospective fan would be able to note was that there were two women in this new band, and that they both wore matching, form-fitting 1960's stewardess uniforms (and often posed rather provacatively in them as well).

By late 2004, some of the mystery behind the headless pictures was finally removed when a more confident Client made it Standard Operating Procedure to allow their faces and names to be shown in the media. This new strategy greatly raised the profile of their second release, City, which was a much better album all around than its more aloof predecessor, with a tighter production (with input from Joe Wilson of Sneaker Pimps) and a warmer, less electro-clashy aura permeating the music. This isn't meant to imply that Client have lost their edge at all: nearly all of the new album is still a synthpop geek's haven of precision-deployed electronics, dancefloor-friendly beats and terse, often sardonic lyrical content. Yet amongst the neo-Kling Klang paeans to pills, sex and prostitution are a handful of songs that recall the striking sonic beauty of classic Dubstar, including the melancholy "One Day At A Time" and the sprightly (yet lyrically downtrodden) "Don't Call Me Baby."

ClientCity also gained some additional coverage thanks to some notable guest vocal appearances, including Fletcher's longtime bandmate Martin L. Gore as well as Carl Barat and the infamous Pete Doherty of The Libertines who provided vocal cameos on "Pornography" (the band's first U.K. Top 40 single) and "Underground," respectively.

A seemingly tireless road outfit, Client have continued promoting City by continuing to tour throughout Europe (a trek, incidentally, that winds up at the end of this month), and playing their monthly Being Boiled DJ gigs in Notting Hill. They've also been keeping their more rabid fans happy by releasing occasional treats such as an extremely-limited pressing of a recent live gig back in March and, more recently, the download-only release Metropolis: an odds and sods remix/rarities compilation that should work as a diverting stopgap until their next full length appears, ostensibly sometime in mid-to-late 2006.

In a parting note, those curious to look into some more new indie electronic pop from the U.K. are hereby encouraged to look into Holmes' recently-started record label Loser Friendly Records. The first signings to Loser Friendly include IAMX (headed by another ex-Sneaker Pimp Wizz Kid), German duo Ultrafox (ha ha, cute), and Sohodolls whose bio describes them as "an electro glam rock expression of sexual aggression."

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