Before Brooklyn, there was Montreal. Kind of like the New York borough nowadays, where you’re likely to bump into an album-of-the-year contender if you walk a block, Montreal in the early part of the decade was the home base for a set of influential indie-rock bands that were making significant waves all over the continent. Two of those Montreal exports were Arcade Fire and the Unicorns, and while the former has been covered by Bruce Springsteen and helped elect an American president, the latter imploded after only one and a half albums and earned a mythology akin to that of the creature it was named after. Brendan Reed, an early drummer for Arcade Fire who left before the band hit it big, and Alden Penner, one half of the songwriting duo behind the Unicorns, are the principal creative forces in Clues, a new band out of Montreal that recently released its debut album and is currently touring the country.
Compared to the usual barrage of internet marketing, Clues has been flying under the radar since its album came out in May: The band has yet to open MySpace or Facebook accounts and its album has only been reviewed by a handful of webzines. That unusually dim publicity push makes the turnout of fifty or so people for a Monday night show at Washington, DC’s DC9 seem a minor coup. After a trio of opening acts, the members of Clues came on stage at around 11:00 PM and calmly tuned their instruments while the room’s bar chatter continued unabated. Any fears that this show was one that you would have to strain to hear above rude, loud drinkers were swept away about a minute into the first song, when the band’s secret weapon kicked in — double drumming. With Brendan Reed joined on percussion duties by Lisa Gamble, Clues easily walloped the crowd to attention, and even if there weren’t always two people at work on the drum kit, we were theirs for the duration of their thirty-five-minute set.
Not to say that Clues’ debut album is overly cerebral, but its most notable aspects are certainly compositional — the songs tend to swell up, crash down, and fly off in unexpected directions, led by Alden Penner’s creaky falsetto. Clues in a live setting though, is an altogether different beast, if Clues on record could be called a beast at all. With Reed and Gamble pounding away to “Approach the Throne”, matched by interment blasts of guitar and trumpet, it was helpful to remember that one of the guys onstage was an integral part of the Arcade Fire’s “No Cars Go”. People around me were almost dancing. There are lot of peaks and valleys on Clues’ album, but on this night even the valleys didn’t seem that deep; everything was elevated. “Perfect Fit”, the first single to leak onto the web a couple of months ago, starts out with a jaunty, Danse Macabre-esque piano figure before transitioning into a cymbal-crashing mod jam resembling something off The Who’s Tommy.
Other highlights during a set that seemed to present one after another in rapid succession included Brendan Reed’s spell as lead vocalist on “You Have My Eyes Now”, the flautist from opener Jerusalem In My Heart guesting on “Ledmonton”, and Penner’s wailed proposition-slash-credo on “Cave Mouth” — “Who here wants to sleep in the dragon’s mouth? / Who here wants to feel?” Whether they expected it or not, Clues’ audience was definitely receiving a significant dose of feeling; like punk rock, hip-hop, or, yes, Arcade Fire, Clues’ musical onslaught was the kind that was felt as much as heard.
Even considering the fact that Clues have been performing since 2007, it’s rare to see a band on its first nationwide tour playing its material with such a combination of muscle and comfort. Helming it all with been-here-before composure was Penner, who will be surprising those who took him for the lesser Unicorn. The still boyish-looking Canadian has an oddly alluring voice, fine songs, and a great band, so take notice. Clues may not have stormed the gates of indie fandom just yet, but they are sitting on an arsenal of possibility.