The Clues Stay Under the Radar

Early shows at The Barbary are a catch-22. On one hand, the bands play short, tight sets and set-up between acts is pretty short. On the other hand, the shows never last much more than two hours and you’re out of there before it’s even dark out. But, the short sets worked Tuesday night at The Clues show for newer bands that have great material, just not a whole lot of it.

“All our songs are about zombies and vampires,” declared Philadelphia’s Conversations with Enemies. If there’s a dark undertone to their bouncy, sing-along pop sound, it’s hard to hear. Conversations mixes a ton of styles together – from harmony-driven surf rock to Eastern European gypsy folk complimented by a mini-trumpet. And it’s their ability to blend those sounds within one song that sets them apart.

Lead singer Josh Craft gives every song a slightly rougher feel and the scratching, acoustic sound from his electric guitar only toughens up a lot of the songs. But last night, any degree of grunge was lost with their mid-song segue into Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.” It was a botched transition, but it only made their mere 25-minute set at 7:00 more upbeat and relaxed.

Drink Up Buttercup – another Philly act – put on an intense show, pounding on floor toms and trash cans with maracas and pulling a hell of a lot of sound out of four instruments. A lot of the vocals and softer guitar lines were lost in the bands great rhythmic sound. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t matter much, except it was clear Buttercup had some cool stuff going on that was lost in the mix. The group did get a great, swashbuckling sound that turned almost gothic on “Seasickness Pills” near the end of the high-energy set that’ll only going to get better as they destroy more and more trashcans. The band will continue on to New York with The Clues before heading back to Philly for a show at Kung Fu Necktie.

Then came The Clues, formed out of the ashes of The Unicorns (front man Alden Penner), plus ex-Arcade Fire guy Brendan Reed. The Clues’ songs have a distinct Unicorns sound, with doubled, whispered falsetto vocals over muted keyboard. They also have that same frantic, yet structured and composed feel so many die-hard Unicorns fans begged for more of after Penner’s brief project ended. One of their best songs, “Perfect Fit,” is a textbook Penner song that the band played too early last night. With everyone switching instruments and trying to balance their sound, it took them a while to settle in.

But once they did, the set was fantastic. Penner’s soft French Canadian accent crooned and rasped over songs that got a lot heavier than The Unicorns or The Arcade Fire ever did, along with others that were more eccentric and playful. On stage the band used everything from a saw, to some kind of scrap metal gong, to the traditional Armenian double reed Duduk.

The Clues has developed a reputation for … not developing a reputation. The band doesn’t have a Myspace page and put out its debut album on the uber-local label Constellation Records this spring. While none of this is particularly admirable in its own right (what’s wrong with throwing a few free tracks online?), it does speak to the band’s desire to stay local and somewhat obscure, supported by the inclusion of Ben Borden, Lisa Gamble, and Nick Scribner – all local (and really talented) Montreal musicians – in the act.

And an early show at The Barbary is a great, low-key way to fly under the radar a little bit – though the show was packed by the time The Clues took the stage. They delivered a great performance that will bring more people in next time around. Here’s hoping that’s sooner rather than later.