Crank the Treble: Clues

Clues - Clues

Today, more from the pages of Treble. Here’s my review for the debut from Clues, the latest project of Montreal indie rock heavyweight Alden Penner (ex-Unicorns). Originally published here (where it also includes, as do all Treble reviews, a short list of similar albums).

For many, the self-titled debut from Montreal’s Clues is expressly nestled in the shadow of rabidly cult-followed Canadian band The Unicorns, so let’s not beat around the bush. The excellent Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? is one of the most oddly satisfying weirdo-pop gems of this decade. As the defining statement of The Unicorns’ short run, it nearly single-handedly drove interest in Nick Thorburn (aka Nick Diamonds) and Jamie Thompson’s (aka J’amie Tambourine) post-Unicorns band Islands to a fever pitch and has no doubt helped to ensure their continued success. However, the other Unicorn, Alden Penner (aka Alden Ginger), has been relatively quiet these past few years… especially for those outside of Canada’s borders. That is, until now.

Those familiar with Penner won’t have to scrutinize this record all that closely to pick out connections to his past work. His instantly recognizable voice rings out on album opener “Haarp,” alternating between explosive shouts and fragile whispers before giving way to his signature riff-packed, melancholic guitar work. But, this isn’t a hollow rehash or cheap Unicorns imitation. While the music here may be, to some degree, in the same vein, the more obvious connective threads are merely glowing accents in a larger patchwork of sounds. Gone are the chintzy keyboards, silly call-and-response, and absurd, over-the-top antics. Yet, for what Clues may sacrifice in pure charm, they make up for with greater patience and maturity. Now teamed with co-songwriter Brendan Reed (formerly of Les Angles Morts and Arcade Fire), Penner’s compositions seem tempered to fit a more grandiose musical vision that does well to set itself apart from even the sizeable weight of either’s former bands.

Still, fans can rest assured that he hasn’t grown up too much. With its playful falsetto, moments of flamboyant theatrics, and all the talk of dragon’s mouths and thrones, elements of childlike fantasy appear throughout Clues as Penner grapples with themes of regret and identity, specifically, his identity as an artist. On “Lets Get Strong,” which appears to respond to both Islands’ “Bucky Little Wing” (supposedly about Alden’s departure) and The Unicorns’ “Let’s Get Known,” he falters at the prospect of indie-fame and alternatively opts for a focus on artistic integrity: “So instead, let’s get strong / I don’t want tourists flocking to my heart / and nesting with all my things / I’ve got wings, but they aren’t meant for viewing.”

With an album like this, Clues might have to settle for both. The more I listen to their eponymous debut, the more I’m convinced by their sound and Penner’s growth as a songwriter. When bands break up, the members of those bands often make a concerted effort to distance their new projects from their old, which can sometimes lead to music that’s centered on being “different” rather than good. Here you won’t find that feeling of distance being forced between this collection of songs and any albums that may have preceded it. There are no obvious compromises or overcompensations. Instead, it all feels very singular and organic…a difficult feat indeed. And while this may not be an instant classic, Clues remains a promising foundation to build upon.

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Download: Clues – Remember Severed Head

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Download: Clues – Perfect Fit
Buy: Order Clues from the Constellation Records webstore on CD or 180-gram vinyl.
Watch: Also, check out the video for “Haarp”, shot on Super 8 by Montreal experimental filmmaker Karl Lemieux.

3 thoughts on “Crank the Treble: Clues

  1. Nice review. I love the album. I did have a question about one of your remarks, though.

    Where did you hear that “Bucky Little Wing” is about Alden? The character, Bucky, whom Nick describes in that song is described as being “tough” and gets attacked by “racist” kids (implying that Bucky may be a minority). The line where he sings, “His name was Charles” also contradicts Alden, but that could simply just be a made-up name for the song.

    Reference the lines:
    – “It was tough being weak, while Bucky was strong”
    – “Standing my ground when Bucky had my back / Hiding in a bush and it’s okay”
    – “Once some racist kids, this is what I heard, pushed him underneath a moving truck”

    Alden is awesome, but I just don’t picture Nick hiding in a bush while Alden defends him.

    “J’aime vous voir Quitter” by Islands is supposedly about Jaime from the Unicorns and Islands, though. It is focused on Jaime quitting the band after “Return to Sea” and Nick’s disappointment.

    I think the “Bucky Little Wing” rumor just got started by a fan who read too much into a song about losing a friend right after the Unicorns broke up.

  2. I’ve read on several occasions that “Bucky Little Wing” was about Alden. I’m not 100% sure it is myself, though I doubt the lyrics of that song are meant to be taken literally in any case (considering The Unicorns/Islands’ love for absurdity). I assumed it was an allegory.

    I also think it’s kinda interesting that “Let’s Get Strong” is pretty similar in composition to “Bucky Little Wing”. Could be coincidence, but I didn’t take it as such in light of the lyrical references to The Unicorns.

  3. Fact: Bucky Little Wing is not about Alden; it’s a true story about Nick’s friend actually named Bucky Little Wing.

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