Being in a band is just like being in any other relationship -- personalities need to mesh or things won’t last. Alden Penner and Nick Thorburn were in an all-too-brief songwriting relationship and together they were responsible for one of my favorite albums of all time, the Unicorns' Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?, so you can imagine my dismay when they ‘divorced’ after one proper album. Thorburn moved on to a new relationship fairly quickly with Islands, who have put out one hella good album and another pretty decent one. Penner has kept to himself mostly since the split, leaving me to assume Thorburn was responsible for the genius that was the Unicorns. Boy, was I wrong. Joining Penner here, among other talented musicians, is Brendan Reed, who was an early member of Arcade Fire and drummed on their debut EP.
Clues won me over immediately with its amazing first three tracks. “Haarp” demonstrates the Montreal group’s incredible attention to detail and subtlety. The range of tempo and dynamics on the three-minute tune span the spectrum, starting with minuscule phrases busting into noisy fermatas that in some small way remind me of early `90s Flaming Lips. When we finally get a beat, we hear first a slower quiet segment and then a toe-tapping section full of dirty guitars to finish the song. “Remember Severed Head” asks "Who here wants to sleep in the dragon’s mouth? / Who here wants to feel?," beginning the album’s obsession with medieval imagery but then mentions something about “a mushroom cloud tattoo.” The band grooves along with a catchy-yet-minor ‘doot-doot-doot’ vocal line doubled in the guitar, high-stepping electric piano intervals and alternates between string-cloaked softer segments and chaotic moments of crashing ride cymbals. “Approach the Throne” starts with clanging percussion and another minor-pop ‘la la la’ melody, which is later thickened up by some brass. The chorus breaks down with horn chords as Reed digs into that china cymbal.
The only thing I would change about this record would be the track listing. After a rollicking start, the album’s midsection is dominated by softer/slower numbers which are tasty atmospheric songs but drain the album of its momentum when bunched together. “You Have My Eyes Now” explodes nicely near the end and sets things up for “Perfect Fit,” a piano- and keyboard-driven tune that brings the rock back. The song has two main parts and the only way I can describe the first part is ‘imagine the piano accompaniment to a silent movie when the villain approaches, waxed mustache and all.’ This first part seems slower with Reed avoiding the backbeat but the second part kicks into high gear, though the gear is in 6/4 (with a quite-necessary 7/4 measure at the end) and we get more medieval lyrics ("They want to take the crown away") as the song finally goes major with a victorious 4/4 breakdown. “Elope” brings it back down acoustic-and-organ style to finish the record’s middle.
“Cave Mouth” may be my favorite song on the record. Xylophone takes the spotlight in the intro until we hear Penner reiterate "Who here wants to sleep in the dragon’s mouth?" and then the song breaks down with a Modest Mouse-y hammer-on/pull-off guitar line. “Ledmonton” starts with wandering minstrel acoustic plucking, but as the rest of the band comes in, things get nuts, with yet another ‘la la’ part, built upon towards the track’s end with buzzing synths and triumphant horns announcing the entrance of Alden Penner, my new king. Step down, Mr. Thorburn. Yes, this is a competition for your child’s love and admiration. Okay, fine…I love you both.
Closer “Let’s Get Strong” first made me think of the Unicorns’ “Let’s Get Known” for no reason more than sharing words in their title, but as it first played it reminded me more of the piano/vocal tune that was tucked at the end of Islands’ Return to the Sea. Not merely for sharing instrumentation, but also a key signature and even some chord progressions. Example: Compare the part with the title line here (2:55) to the part on “Renaud” (the hidden Islands track), "Then some racist kids…" (7:29). Am I crazy? Is it just a coincidence? Seems strange either way. Is it an homage to Thorburn and a sign that the duo that may some day reunite? Probably not, and I’ll try not to get my hopes up too much for that.
For now though, I get two Christmases as Clues and Islands will hopefully both continue to release great music. Clues’ debut has taken its place as an early contender for album of the year, and I know it’s risky to say these things (though I say them a lot anyway) but this is just a damn solid album with a dirty, boomy, dark yet poppy feel and wide range of songs. Time to start your relationship with Clues.