When the Unicorns split up in 2004, one half of the band’s songwriting duo, Nick Thorburn, went off and immersed himself in various new projects, including Islands, Human Highway, and Reefer, all which showed off Thorburn’s ability to wring melodies out of various musical forms. But the other half of the Unicorns, Alden Penner, went the other route, essentially disappearing out of the indie-hype circle that made the Unicorns such a hot commodity. Apart from an Australia-only 7-inch released in late 2004 and the score for an indie-film, Penner has remained scarce.
That was until 2007, when Penner appeared at Montreal’s Pop festival to play as the lead singer of Clues, an indie-pop band he formed with former Arcade Fire drummer and vocalist Brendan Reed (he originally sang the Neon Bible standout “No Cars Go” in demo form). It took awhile for the band to get an album together (and to solidify its current five-piece lineup), but Clues showcases the type of epic, broken psychedelia that marked Penner’s contribution to the Unicorns.
Clues opens with the set-defining combo of “Haarp,” a song that see-saws between Penner’s child-like intonations and dissonant sonic build-ups, and “Remember Severed Head,” alternately the most scary and catchy song on Clues. “Remember” is the highlight here, with Penner playing the part of the prickly free-associative poet, dropping non-sequiters about being in a dragon’s mouth, mushroom-cloud tattoos and severed heads before ending with a disenchanted “death is swallowed up in victory” refrain as the band jumps between a crushing Sabbath riff and dreamy atmospherics.
While Penner is undeniably the star here (though Reed sings some songs), the cacophony and power of the music on Clues assures that it doesn’t become a solo record. The frightened piano on “Perfect Fit” creates a claustrophobic setting that closes in until it retracts like daybreak in the song’s latter third. Clues morph into a fire and brimstone blues band for “Crows,” sounding like a ragged outfit playing soldiers to the front of some large battle. Colliding synths and grinding strings create a chilling texture on the floating “In the Dream,” and sauntering guitar riffs, cutting marimba, and off kilter drumming drip menace on “Cave Mouth,” a song that’s title barely describes its vastness.
To avoid getting wrapped up in the same blog-hyped fame rush that reportedly led to the Unicorns’ break-up, Clues are taking a music-only approach with Clues, refusing to put up a MySpace page or a website,and touring lightly. Somehow that fits the unassuming album best, because the purpose of Clues wasn’t to outshine Penner or Reed’s past successes, but to make great new music. And on Clues, they do just that.