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When: June 23, 2015

We’re all familiar with the convention: Hollywood actor with massive ego and delusions of grandeur decides he wants to be a rockstar, forms a band, and goes on to receive adulation from their fans and absolute disdain from everybody else. Keanu Reeves, Jared Leto, Russell Crowe… the list is endless. And largely unlistenable.

But what happens when an ‘indie’ actor decides to move into music? And what if they join in as just another musician, rather than the usual ‘global icon surrounded by nobodies’ formula? Moreover, if it’s your band the actor joins, how do you enjoy the increased attention without being overshadowed by their presence?

This was the challenge for Alden Penner, co-founder of cult Canadian band The Unicorns (along with Nick Thorburn, whose new album as Nick Diamonds we coincidentally reviewed yesterday), as he kicked off a European tour at iconic London venue The 100 Club. His friendship with Michael Cera, who made his name in Arrested Development and has since become the go-to guy for gauche roles in films like Juno and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, stems from the soundtrack to the film Paper Heart which they collaborated on in 2009.

Thus their joint billing is not quite as surprising as it might sound, especially seeing as Cera has played with Weezer and Mister Heavenly in the past and released a lo-fi solo album last year. Certainly there’s no doubt that Cera’s presence on the tour, widely billed as ‘Alden Penner with Michael Cera’, has boosted its profile somewhat, and as we descend into the bowels of The 100 Club, I’m intrigued to see if it’s possible to work out who is here for whom…

Perhaps to make sure we’re all aware whose gig this really is, Alden Penner takes the stage alone for ‘Oh Fleeting Shadow’, a twangy solo lament written for former band The Hidden Words. It gets a deservedly warm response, but it’s topped by the cheer when Cera takes to the stage with the rest of the band. While the actor’s presence is low-key, every word he utters into the microphone is greeted with laughter no matter how funny it is, or indeed whether it was intended as a joke. A shy “Hi” is greeted by mass whooping, while a facetious “strong start, very strong opening,” after ‘Ghost of Creaky Crater’ earns howls of laughter.

The jovial atmosphere seems to encourage audience members to try and be funny too, with mixed results. One observation from the stage – “A lot of nice faces here tonight” – gets a loud response of “fuck you!” from one exuberant punter. “Glad we’re all on the same page…” Cera mutters wryly.

He then takes the lead to perform one of his own tracks, ‘Oh Nadine’, which he ends with the comment: “That’s probably the whitest song in our whole set. No disrespect to white folks.” No disrespect to Cera, but it’s also the worst song of the set.

What of the rest of the music? Well it’s fair to say there’s a disappointing lack of tracks from Penner’s excellent new Canada In Space EP. In fact, the set is eleven tracks old before anything off it appears (and I only hear that through the toilet walls during a much-needed loo break). A shame as it really is a fine record, and I can recommend no better way to celebrate Canada Day than by buying it right now.

Elsewhere, everything’s a bit hit or miss. The crunchy Americana of ‘Put It On Me’ brings to mind Elliott Smith circa Figure 8, while ‘A Beautiful Dream’ (from last years Exegesis album) exhibits that playful, wistful sound The Unicorns used to specialise in. On the other hand, ‘Harsha’ is ramshackle as hell, while ‘Decline’ sounds like a low-rent Daniel Johnston demo. It takes ‘Ledmonton’, a bluesy gunfight of a track by another of Penner’s old bands The Clues, to pull it all back together.

The charming melancholy of ‘My Good Friend’ also succeeds, with Penner manipulating a record deck to add a sci-fi sheen to a lo-fi lullaby, but it’s recent track ‘Breathe To Burn’ I’ve been waiting for. Like a less bloated version of ‘The End’ by The Doors, the understated intro is easily the most atmospheric moment of the gig, with Penner’s voice sounding timorous yet portentous in the middle of it.

Unfortunately, the moment where the song suddenly switches into punkish thrash falls a little flat, with the distortion sounding scratchy rather than edgy. While Penner’s guitar sound has a gorgeous twang at lower volumes tonight, sadly it doesn’t sound nearly as nice when it’s turned up.

It sums up a gig that never quite manages to live up to the sum of its parts, never mind its star billing. Of course it’s the first night of the tour and things are never going to run perfectly smoothly, but it’s hard to see what Cera adds to the evening beyond some between-song chatter and a sense of occasion. He’s a competent musician but a less than competent singer, which becomes all too apparent as the night progresses.

It presents an awkward conundrum. Sure, Michael Cera’s appearances will bring a few more people into contact with Alden Penner’s music – but you can’t help but think that the music would sound better if he wasn’t there.

Kier Wiater Carnihan

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