Review Summary: An indie pop concerto that emulates as many styles as it blends, opting for charismatic guitar pop in a year hung up on lo-fi unplugged from personality. The result is far from flawless, but Clues sparkles in the rough.
Considering the rise-and-fall epic that became of the Unicorns and the general anticipation towards Nicholas Thorburn and Jamie Thompson’s quick post-break up Islands that never really added up, lack of promotion and hype surrounding the first release from the only Unicorns member who remains unspoken for might be its saving grace. That is to say, Clues
is bombastic, genuine, prog-inspired indie pop, an “album” of all things, that regularly tests ones patience and the mind. Bewildering, I know, but these things aren’t known for withstanding pitchforks and a blogger-fueled world wide web, which Alden Penner understands completely. In a recent interview with About.com, Penner noted, “I’m mostly just concerned with what’s going on within the band. What perspective is coming from outside of the band ... that barely enters into my mind.”
Being genuine can only get the band so far if the material isn’t there to back it up. But what Penner, along with ex-Arcade Fire (pre-Funeral
) drummer Brendan Reed, have created is something of a mini-masterpiece: an indie pop concerto that emulates as many styles as it blends, opting for charismatic guitar pop in a year hung up on lo-fi unplugged from personality. Clues manage to play the melodrama straight while building on everything that made Unicorns fun in the first place, and this time around, Penner sounds like he’s actually enjoying himself too. This general sense of well-meaning and excitement is what pushes Clues
to glorious peaks and cushions its valleys, so that lulls in momentum become more essential to the album as a continuous, unspooling plot rather than a collection of tunes; more Funeral
than Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?
Viewed in this context, some of Penner’s more questionable decisions, especially those concerning his vocals, become begrudging satisfiers, notably on the thicket of acoustic guitars that whirl on “In The Dream” that finds Penner shoving a falsetto out of a heightened whisper. He guides spaghetti western into ghostly balladry on “Elope,” sounding diminished as he laments lust (“turgid waters of desire / animate my limbs once more / dance me deserted and slow / across your ocean and your floor”) and forebodes death (“in the garden of your lord / waits a figure in a cloak / something snaring time”). The song’s languish becomes crucial to the peaks that precede and follow it.
And those peaks, man, they peak. Opener “Haarp” ensnares from the outset with nothing but a tumble of Big Drums and a flush of notes that would make Pavement fans blush. “Remember Severed Head” coats electronic fuzz over thorny guitar chords, its percussion bordering on industrial rock as a chorus punctuates the noise with a collection of “oohs,” though its the recurring line, “who here wants to sleep in the dragon’s mouth,” that stands out. Penner picks it up again later on “Cave Mouth,” reformatting the meaning from grim alternative rock to sharply crafted post hardcore, as envisioned by a pop auteur and psychedelic sensibilities.
Blends of these influences serve Clues well on a particular number of tracks, like the romanticism in “You Have My Eyes Now” that sends a serene rumble of guitars careening into its well-earned post-rock climax, and again on “Perfect Fit.” Clues
’ first single proves to be the most adept at encompassing everything that works about the album in full, shoving three perfectly articulated segments into one thoroughly enjoyable three-and-a-half minutes of bombastic, genuine, prog-inspired indie pop. “Perfect Fit” sends the album off into its second half without a hitch, matched in grandeur only later on “Ledmonton,” which weaves folk and anthemic rock into a four minute climax that works spectacularly in position. Piano closer “Let’s Get Strong” is beautiful and melancholic, but played with the right amount of wink that it lifts our spirits rather than deflate them.
In the face of a long list of impressionable indie rock releases this year, Clues
is refreshingly bombastic and outward reaching, turning the resurgence in scuzzy production on its head. It isn't first and foremost a pop album; it is an album that compels with an ebb and flow dependent on its valleys and peaks, when Clues aren't being their own brand of fashionably weird, oddball indie pop. The result is far from flawless, but Clues
sparkles in the rough.