Sunday, 16 June 2013

Retrospective: The Unicorns – Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? Ten Years On


Ten years since its original release, the sole album from Canadian three-piece The Unicorns, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?, still comes across as a effortlessly quirky, ambitious and unique release. Not by any means are they the first (or last) band to make weird, lo-fi pop music, but I don't think there has been another album like it, and after years of listening to it, I'm still glad to enter the strange world they created and find new things within it when I do. When I first saw the album, it's whimsical title and the messy cartoon doodle that made up its cover after buying it on a recommendation, I immediately fell for its charms.
After a few EPs (which are definitely worth seeking out if you've enjoyed this album), they put out their first album in 2003, on the label Alien8, mostly known for releasing experimental music by acts including Godspeed You! Black Emperor off-shoot Set Fire To Flames and Japanese noise veteran Merzbow. This would be a strange home any other indie band, but it seemed perfectly apt for The Unicorns.

   The band is made up of the two front men and songwriters, Nicholas Thorburn and Alden Penner, joined by Jamie Thompson on drums, and fitting in with their own strange world they all went under a revolving set of various stage names and monikers during their time in the band. Filled with both a balance of child-like naivety and grown-up cynicism, they explore offbeat an often morbid themes in this album, amongst sillier topics and stories, dealing with ghosts, ghost stories, parasitic creatures, and bands determined to make it big.
   Despite its indie-pop leaning and upbeat guitar hooks, they avoid simple verse chorus structures, instead constricting music that is as narratively driven as their lyrics. These vary between the direct and straightforward to the obscure and impenetrable, littered with witty (but undoubtedly cheesy) puns like 'I can't stand these Jellybones'. Through the album, they make use of a wide variety of instruments, from toy keyboards and weird synthesizers to flutes and xylophones, as well as a whole lot of studio trickery interspersed with the sounds of a band just messing around and having fun (Sea Ghost starts off with a jaunty 18-second flute solo).
   The album is bookended by songs about death, one of the recurring themes on the album. On I Don't Wanna Die, a paranoid character lists ways in which they could meet their fate with the fixated obsession of a hypochondriac, whilst the album closer Ready To Die, features a character washed up on an island in an poor state, left to contemplate and accept his impending death (and it also features one of my favourite endings to an album).
   Tuff Ghost (One of three songs with ghost in it's title) is about a shallow, uncaring ghost ('I'm a strong dead man/looking out for myself') as he gets criticized by the still living with the clever refrain, 'I can see right through/ right through you' as the song ends with playful synthesizers and a bass guitar almost duelling over a manic drum beat. The two singers in the band often take up the roles of different characters, offering different sides to the same story, which is the approach taken on Jellybones. After an unexpected synthesizer solo starts the song, a patient describes rushing to the emergency ward of a hospital, the role of the doctor is taken. He approaches him to reveal the diagnosis, 'Son, I'm afraid you've got a full blown case of what is know as Jellybones'. The song is exemplary of the surreal and madcap stories that are told over the album.

   One of the stand outs is Child Star, placed at the centre of the album. The star from the title, a now washed up child actor in denial as he enters adulthood, talks to an old fan, feeling let down by what the actor he once idolized has now become. Detuned synthesizers that sound like they've come from some decades old b-movie take over before the conversation between the two characters becomes more heated. As the song moves into its final quarter they argue 'I'm still a big big star/No you're not' before it descends in to a perfect moment: a back and forth of 'I hate you' over one the albums more upbeat musical moments. Live drums kick in in double time, taking over from drum machines that started the song, as a lively guitars and synths bouce around, soundtracking the discord between the bickering actor and fan.
   Band anthem I Was Born (A Unicorn) is a perfect slice of indie pop, with jangly major key guitars and a driving drum pattern. It characterises all the charm, humour and weird pop sensibilities in one of the most direct and catchy tracks on the album. Tuff Luff, deals with nuclear war, as they sing 'We're going down in smoke and flames/We're going down and there's no one to blame' over cheery, almost-twee flutes, using their trick of juxtaposing some of their darkest lyrical moments with upbeat melodies, deployed on many other tracks on the album like Sea Ghost and Los Os. Its hard to tell were they stand on the issue, with hyperbolic rapped lyrics calling for everyone to repent, but it is clear that the band are taking pleasure in being unashamedly silly, especially when dealing with dark and serious issues.

   The band wasn't to last, and possibly under the stresses of touring, the band split apart in 2004 on less that amicable terms just a year after they released WWCOHWWG?. Since the Unicorns split, the band members have all taken part in various projects, many short-lived, but some on-going. Most of these guys' out puts are worth investigating, in particular Clues self-titled album and Islands' Return To The Sea which seem to display many of the same approaches to song writing, though both musicians never manage to recreate the strange perfection of that first LP.
   Nicholas Thorburn started up a new band Islands shortly after the Unicorn broke-up with Jaime Thompson back on drums. Islands, which took the pop side of the Unicorns into a more hi-fi direction with a bigger band and more elaborate arrangements. They released their first album 2006, called Return to the Sea, in which a few riffs surface from early Unicorns tracks like in Swans (Life After Death) taking melodies from an early song called Thunder and Lightening. They also took in some world music and hip-hop influences (with LA-based rappers Busdriver and Subtitle making an appearance on Where There's a will, There's a Whalebone) into their indie-pop style. The band are still going, with frequent line-up changes and four albums under the name. Nick also has also kept busy with a bunch of collaborative side projects including: Human Highway with Jim Guthrie, Mister Heavenly with Ryan Kartner of Man Man and Joe Plummer, drummer with Modest Mouse and The Shins (and actor Michael Cera played bass for them live), and he's released a solo album under his own name.

    Alden Penner has continued as a solo act and composed a score for the film The Hamster Cage in 2005. He joined the band Clues, formed by ex-Arcade Fire member Brendan Reed, and only released the one album in 2009 before they disbanded. Most recently, he formed the group The Hidden Words, which brought Jamie Thompson in on drums, playing music inspired by the Bahá'í Faith.

   There are plenty of demo’s and b-sides floating about on the internet from their time as Unicorns, check out the (not so secret) secret unicorns forum for more of their output that has been compiled by some rather dedicated fans. Their EPs, Unicorns Are People Too and Three Inches of Blood, feature some very different versions of songs that would later appear on WWCOHWWG?, often featuring drum machines for percussion and sounding much more like bedroom recordings. They also feature some tracks that match the brilliance of their EP such as Peach Moon and the hectic Do the Knife Fight.

   It may be the clash of the two personality’s at the centre of the band that made it so compelling to listen to, but also meant they couldn't stay together forever. You can imagine the arguments in their lyrics reflect real life tensions between the two front men. Its an album with conflict at its centre, a constant battle between thought-out and playful, funny and serious, weird and accessible and that might be why it has drawn me so deeply into its peculiar world. It might seem a shame they didn't stay together longer, but at least with Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? they gave us an original, self-contained world that they filled with strange characters, death, darkness and irreverent humour. As they say on the album closer Ready To Die, as the narrator accepts his inevitable end, things conclude.

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