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The Unicorns strike it rich with their unique brand of sullied indie-pop

Wednesday, Mar 24 2004
To use the word "sophisticated" when talking about sloppy Montreal pop outfit the Unicorns seems somehow inappropriate. There's nothing that sounds calculated or mature about the band at first listen. Rather, the group's sophomore release, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone, is a flailing collection of absurd lyrical refrains, low-fidelity guitar and organ riffs, and sudden tempo changes.

Still, it might be the right word to use here, not only to explain the group, but also to describe the collective taste of indie music fans in general. It's getting harder for bands to slap together some emotionally confessional lyrics and trite chord changes and still call it indie. Instead, music fans are begging for -- and eating up -- records that prize sonic and conceptual weirdness as much as they do catchy hooks.

"It's really hard to analyze," says Unicorns singer/multi-instrumentalist Alden Ginger, speaking by cell phone from a tour van en route to a show in Chapel Hill, N.C. "We never really thought that people would digest our music like this."

But "digest" is far too modest a word. Since late 2003, Who Will Cut Our Hair has garnered much acclaim from the indie world, including raves from the normally cruel, though revered, online publication Pitchfork Media, which said, "The Unicorns toe the line of bedroom intimacy and heart-swelling wonder as perfectly as any of the modern masters of the form." In addition to receiving critical kudos, the record has placed highly on CMJ's North American radio charts for months, and was the No. 1 best seller on indie retail Web site Insound for many weeks in late 2003 and early 2004, rarely slipping out of the top 15 since its release. And for those who didn't notice, the Unicorns were one of the highlights of last month's Noise Pop festival.

But all this for a brand of sloppy slacker-pop? Since when do out-of-tune guitars and lyrics about ghosts add up to top-notch rock 'n' roll? Perhaps the Unicorns just found themselves in the right place at the right time, when people were bored with traditional pop and looking for something different. Something very different.

In large part, the Unicorns, according to their singer, owe their success to rollerblades and hockey goals. As Ginger explains, he and Nicholas "Neil" Diamonds met in the late '90s when they were both part of a street-blading hockey team in high school. The two musicians would get together and craft song ideas with whatever instruments they had. And they must have been doing something right, because they were soon signed to Alien8 Recordings, a typically experimental label. In early 2003, Unicorns Are People Too was released.

Ginger laughs when asked about how he and Diamonds met drummer Jamie Thomson, who joined the band shortly after the first record was made. "The whole street-blading thing has opened a bunch of doors for us," he says. "Jim was the goalie." With label support and the band intact, the Unicorns made Who Will Cut Our Hair. Insecure about their songwriting, though, they resorted to whatever shenanigans they could muster for live performances. "We sort of always thought the music wasn't interesting enough," Ginger says, "so we tried to compensate during shows."

Virtually overnight, the Unicorns went from playing tiny, sparsely populated clubs in their hometown to packing mid- to large-size venues in the States. Their concerts were as chaotic and ragged as their records, a fact that begat return customers. At their first show in New York City, for example, a decent but hardly fantastic turnout watched the band's drunken roadie stumble onstage in a fuzzy unicorn costume before finally deciding to take a nap next to the foot of a keyboard stand. Halfway through the set, in a move that widened the band's eyes as much as the audience's, Ginger and Diamonds locked lips on a whim. The next time the Unicorns came through town, the room was packed with curiosity and cheers. During another gig, in Athens, Ga., where R.E.M. is gospel, Ginger made a tasteless joke involving Michael Stipe before proceeding to rudely scream at the soundman. If this were any other band, the crowd would have been appalled. But, dressed in their token pink and white costumes, it's hard to take the Unicorns as anything but wacky goofballs.

Much like that of their predecessors Pavement, the Unicorns' "I don't give a fuck" approach goes very far. On record and onstage, the group is never afraid to experiment with sounds, timing, melody, or imagery. What results is something distinct from the emotional and melodic tidiness of the Pedro the Lion/ Elliott Smith template that dominated indie rock at the turn of the century.

Who Will Cut Our Hair trafficks in ultimate weirdness, in presenting absurdity without hesitation. Before the two-minute opener "I Don't Want to Die" finishes, the group has already mined the high-register, off-key croons of the Flaming Lips, the sound-collage-y background noise of Magical Mystery-era Beatles, and the keyboard tones of Saturday morning cartoons. "I pretend I die in a plane crash," the Unicorns sing before making crash noises with their mouths. All of this has the effect of a no-holds-barred puppet show. No concept is too odd, and the results are colorful.

On the surface, the group sounds like some slapdash band your crazy younger cousin started with his buddies one summer, but pay closer attention and you discover mature melodies and production techniques, like the stark tempo changes of "Tuff Ghost" or the crackling, evil keyboard phrasing of the disco-ish "Jellybones." The record hardly discounts pop's sweetness -- it's often as catchy as they come -- but its structures and moods subtly undermine the traditional framework of conventional indie-rock. Absurd lyrical refrains like, "We're the Unicorns/ And we're people too," from "I Was Born (A Unicorn)," embed themselves in the listener's mind, despite their ridiculousness.

What all of this adds up to is a theatrical element that looks to fall in line with what people are searching for in modern-day indie rock. As emo becomes more and more mainstream (if it's not already 100 percent commercialized), people are less likely to respond to singers crooning about their daily dose of emotional roller-coastering. Instead, listeners want to be wowed with fictions their everyday lives don't provide them with. Apparently songs about ghosts and mythical stallions are doing the trick.

Bands like Deerhoof, Xiu Xiu, and Liars, which prioritize the bizarre over catchiness, are popular with the same crowd that worshipped Ben Gibbard's and Conor Oberst's confessional pop just a few years back. Even the ultra-corporate, major-label side of the spectrum is noticing that people's tastes are changing. The fact that Radiohead can sell volumes of records with nary a pop hook must attest to something. The fact that the new, Clear Channel-operated Los Angeles radio station Indie 103.1 melds independent bands with commercial playlists must attest to even more.

With their sudden success, Ginger and Diamonds seem willing to push the envelope further. Onstage, when they're not kissing or encouraging drunken roadies, they're taunting crowds and tweaking songs from the record. At the end of the day, the same pop idea can only be squeezed so much before its juices become tasteless. Sophisticated or not, the Unicorns, with their devotion to one-horned horses, odd characters, and frantic chord changes, may be one of the precursors to what the next decade of indie pop holds.

About The Author

Abigail Clouseau


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