Clue to Kalo is a wondrous, baroque, chamber-pop collage that emerges almost exclusively from the mind of Mark Mitchell. Originally from Adelaide, and since 2010 based in Melbourne and working as a producer out of Cornel Wilczek’ Electric Dreams studio in South Melbourne, Mark has released four LPs and one EP as Clue to Kalo since 2003.
Up until now, listening a typical Clue to Kalo LP was like sorting through the contents of a dusty attic owned by a recently deceased 19th century aristocrat and mystic who had dismantled his Wunderkammer and put it in storage. There were completely unexpected twists and turns, ornately filigreed chord progressions that played with two centuries of expectation, clouds of backing vocals obscured by patina, forgotten antique instruments cheek-by-jowl with the new electricomagnetic wonders of the age and a guiding voice through it all thought sought to gently instruct and reflect.
Most of those elements remain on Clue to Kalo’ latest, The Motives Records. Tellingly, though, this is the first album Mark has recorded outside of his bedroom. Motives was recorded and mixed at Electric Dreams, with additional performances from colleagues Cornel Wilczek and Jojo Petrina. The final mix and production are credited to Cornel and Clue to Kalo. The new process has bought focus and economy to Clue to Kalo’ arrangements. Mark’ lead vocals are now front-and-centre. Even the choirs of backing vocals that used to swoop in and out of comprehension are now high and clear in the mix.
One of the most interesting things about Motives is the way Mark takes songs that he has written firmly based in harmony and melody and incorporates complex and well-produced electronic elements, often completely replacing any of the traditionally instrumented arrangement that probably formed the backbone of the guide track. On earlier albums such as 2005′ One Way, It’s Every Way and 2009′ Lily Perdida, the acoustic guitars, electric pianos and acoustic drums would often underpin whole tracks, with electronic flourishes added for flavour. Motives has seen Mark tidy up his more cluttered bedroom mixes to tight, punchy realisations of each’ songs central idea,
Lyrically, Clue to Kalo still indulges in rich, obscure wordplay (when was the last time you heard the word “exegesis’ used on an indie pop album?), painting weird portraits of ordinary people in often banal and depressing narratives. Clue to Kalo can sound judgemental, and listening to a whole album sometimes feels like being gently told-off by a good friend (if you’re paying attention). A cast of characters that criticise others without self-awareness, lament being in situations of their own making or assert superiority over others are common across Clue to Kalo’ albums.
Motives, to my ear, sounds a lot like Mark talking to himself about approaching middle-age. A self-confessed “child of the eighties’, Clue to Kalo is dealing with themes common to those of us around 40; thinking on the ambitions of your youth and accepting what you probably won’ achieve, worrying about becoming complacent, and the ageing or passing of parents. As such, it’s lyrically less caustic than earlier albums, tempered as it is with self-reflective wisdom. Clue to Kalo may reproach his protagonists, but he knows he’ ultimately talking to himself.
Lead-out single Burning Arrow is arresting in its departure from the sound of any previous Clue to Kalo track. Unashamedly radio-ready, electro, gleaming and cold, it’s a deliberate reference to the New Romantic Eighties of Mark’ youth as he summons the energy of his teens. Part Gary Numan, part Human League in production, it’s a beautiful collision of Clue to Kalo’ capacity for harmonic invention with a genre more closely associated with punk simplicity.
The stand out track for me, however, is the closer from which the album takes its name, “Motives’. This is everything that makes Clue to Kalo so compelling, encapsulated in one track. Distorted samples that sound like a demented kalimba and steel drum ensemble, soaring backing vocals, changes of meter and harmony not often heard in electronica, baroque suspensions and shining, glorious joy, all without anything resembling a traditional instrument to be heard. Clue to Kalo’ greatest moments are when Mark shows how a master electronic musician and producer can take the harmonic traditions of songwriters like Randy Newman, Brian Wilson or Lennon/ McCartney and bring them into an environment that is most often articulated either mono or atonally.
– Jason Allen