Alden Penner, in the garage, with a guitar

Five years ago, I would have gotten really excited about the news of a new album from an ex-Unicorns member. But since that time, Nick Thorburn has released a string of projects ranging from decent to mediocre to downright awful, meaning that I feel some trepidation about any new material from the once-legendary collective.

I needn’t have worried, since the self-titled album by Clues, the new project by Alden Penner (Thorburn’s one-time songwriting partner) is the best post-Unicorns release yet. Not coincidentally, it’s also the project that sounds most like Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?, with no-nonsence production, and Penner’s unsettling, whispered vocals. The songs toe the line between creepy and ridiculous, with morbid warnings about death and a “dragon’s mouth.” The instrumental arrangements are equally twisted, as the album is full of squealing feedback, warped guitar riffs, and childish falsetto humming.

But Penner can’t receive full credit for the success of Clues, since he is supported by four other musicians, including Brendan Reed, a pre-Funeral member of Arcade Fire. Penner’s bandmates prevent Clues from sounding like a Unicorns rehash, with eclectic arrangements that range from white-washes of ambient sound (“In the Dream”) to snarling punk (“Approach the Throne”). “You Have My Eyes Now” begins as an aimless dreamscape of feedback and reverb-soaked guitar, but halfway through it suddenly explodes into a theatrical, arena-sized waltz. The band also knows when to scale things back—the closing track, “Let’s Get Strong,” is a piano-and-voice ballad that’s so sweet and gentle, it could almost be Coldplay.

mp3: “Perfect Fit”
mp3: “Remember Severed Head”

Clues doesn’t quite reach Unicorns-worthy levels of brilliance, but it’s a more cohesive and satisfying listen than any-other post Unicorns project. It’s due out on May 19 via Constellation.
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