The Unicorns were from Montreal, Quebec and they made this terrific album when they were in their early 20s. I mention their age as one of the many remarkable things they manage to accomplish here is to channel the spirits of two nine year-old boys. Nine year-old boys who are in a touring rock band, to be more precise. If that sounds odd, well it is, but it’s also hilarious and moving and it opens up a whole musical toy box which The Unicorns rifle through with demented gusto.
Nick Thorburn and Alden Penner essentially duet across the album’s 13 songs. The vocals go back and forth like a conversation between two cub scouts sharing a tent in a spooky forest. They’re obsessed with premature death and its avoidance (the album opens with ‘I Don’t Wanna Die’, closes with ‘Ready to Die’ and inbetween comes a run of three tracks all of which have the word ‘Ghost’ in the title), they bicker and whine, about being in a band and often about the other’s performance (“I write the songs/I WRITE THE SONGS!/ You say i’m doing it wrong/ YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG!”) and still have time to sing about being unicorns.
Meanwhile their songs, scratchy home-made punk pop in spirit, are incredible, gleeful experiments in smashing together incongruous sounds, instruments and styles. They can’t stand still for more than about 20 seconds and most tracks move through contrasting styles, time signatures, melodies and arrangements like a quick-change artist swaps hats.
None of this should work, but the alchemical miracle of ‘Who Will Cut Our Hair…’ is that it does. The whole thing hangs together, studded with irresistible hooks, great jokes, amazing noises all bound up by the threesome’s overwhelming energy, commitment and sheer sense of fun. It’s easily one of my favourite records of the last 10 years.
Nick Thorburn went on to lead Islands, another great band, forging records using subtly unconventional arrangements and approaches. My wife and I played one of their songs at our wedding ceremony. As if you care.
Nick listened: I enjoyed this record too, and quite a lot; sadly it seemed to suffer from going first, as Tom’s reaction to Caribou and my reaction to The Slits overwhelmed our reactions to this. The Unicorns are a band I’d heard of but not really registered, back in the days when I wrote for Stylus; looking at the timelines, this was released in late 2003, when I was at my most disenfranchised with indie, and costuming techno, hip hop, and chart pop pretty ravenously . Something as winsome and twee as two men, of about my age, singing like kids, would probably have raised my ire a bit, so it’s just as well that I ignored them at the time. Now, though, I can take it in sans the context and mood of the moment, and appreciate that, as Rob says, though the songs are topographically messy, the constituent parts are pretty uniformly excellent. Have a strong feeling that Em would like this, too. Must remember to borrow it off Rob.
Tom Listened: I had previously been lent this album by Rob and had returned it having given it a couple of half-hearted semi-listens; you know…washing machine on, in and out of the back door, kids screaming, that sort of thing. So I was intrigued and pleased to have been given the chance to hear Who Will Cut Our Hair properly and let the rarified DRC listening conditions work its magic (although Rob and I still need to learn to wave our hands frantically and ssh the chatter when we are getting to a good bit on our record).
So it was more than a little annoying that I spent the first two thirds of the record trying (possibly without resolution) to identify the soundalike voice. It could have been Jason Lyttle from Grandaddy, possibly Phil Elvrum (The Microphones/Mt Eerie) but whoever it was, trying to nail it in my head certainly got in the way of enjoying the record. And then, around track 9 or 10 I realised that the song I was listening to was pretty astounding, which made me wish I had been able to pay closer attention to the rest of the album, rather than having to listen to the sound of my mental filing system rifling through its ever more inaccessible information. Must remember to borrow this one from Nick!