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Friday, November 21, 2003
Listening to the Unicorns right now, and boy oh boy am I pissed the fuck off.

Hey, so remember that Pitchfork review? It's totally wrong. Totally. Let's see, where to begin...

1) "what truly sets Who Will Cut Our Hair apart is the near total absence of traditional verse/chorus/verse framework in their songs"

This is true only if you are a half-deaf 3rd-grader with tintinitus who is currently being fellated by one of the band members. I don't really know how to refute this, since I don't know how you can honestly listen to this album and not hear verse-chorus-verse structures in the songs. I can diagram it for Eric if he wants, I guess. Like, let's try "Les Os,":

Intro->hook->verse->hook->verse->hook->bridge->solo->bridge (in which he quotes the Flaming Lips--I shit you not!)

Is this "I Wanna Be Sedated?" No, but it's hardly Shoenberg, or even Deerhoof. It's definitely not formless. The only defenses here would be "Well, I don't hear a structure," or "Well, the band members didn't intend for there to be a structure," both of which are so lame that I don't really need to bother, do I? Intentionality is a fallacy, y'all...

Anyway, as a supposedly "formless pop song," it doesn't come close to, say, Beyonce's "Yes." A 50 BPM freeform pop slow-jam? Oh yeah. But Beyonce is successful and mainstream and on a major label, whereas the Unicorns are unknown and Canadian and on Alien8, so we know without even listening which one's experimental, right?

2) "Songs shift effortlessly from moment to moment, never once relying upon the crutch of repetitive composition to create the illusion of a powerful hook."

Again, I'm not entirely sure how to refute this except to say: listen to the damn album, willya?! Take just the first track: there's a keyboard part that comes in at 0:17 that lasts through the rest of the song; the vocal line that comes in with the keys takes a break for a chorus and then repeats at 0:39, followed by another chorus, and the chorus comes back at 1:39, and all of these sections have basically the same bass and drums part behind them. There are lots of hooks, and they're often repeated, both continually and at different points in the song.

3) "These days, when "epic" describes a line at the bank, it doesn't seem adequate to describe the scope of some of these tunes..."

It's not adequate because it's not accurate. The longest song is 5:30. Having lots of hooks does not make a song "epic." There's nothing that sounds remotely like a Who song or a Queen song or "November Rain," which are pretty much my standards for "epic but conceivably able to be played on the radio." (When I really think of "epic" I think of MBV and Mogwai and like that, generally.) Fair enough, there are a lot of different bits, but they mostly add up to fragments and sketches, due to...well, not very good songwriting, really.

4) "When it's so easy for bands to stay behind the indie-pop curve that you'd think someone's handing out ice cream back there, The Unicorns are ahead. In fact, they're so far ahead that superficial distinction becomes virtually unnecessary; they're striking at the most fundamental structure of the pop song itself."

You can't "strike" at a "fundamental structure" when it's abstract. You can play with it, change it for your own uses, sure, even invent a new structure. But strike at it? Hardly. And they're not even changing much. Let's not even get into "subversion" issues or I'll start pounding the table with my shoe...

The sad part about all this is that the Unicorns are an okay band that could have a good follow-up if they buckled down and tightened up their songwriting a bit. And I would totally be fine with someone liking them and writing a positive review of the album, even if I wouldn't. It's OK indie-pop. But it's sad if the only way you can allow yourself to like something like this is by convincing yourself that it's "experimental." Sure, the band gives off all the necessary signs--token pop act on an avant label, lo-fi production, wonky keyboards--but that doesn't mean you should go for it. Maybe they just didn't have a lot of money, you know?

But I think it's these signs, coupled with their poor songwriting skills, that are leading folks to label them as experimental. But if this is experimental, then so are the New Pornographers, Jay-Z, XTC, etc., etc. These folks are just better songwriters and are adept at using their weirdness and their playing with forms as keys to better songs. Tons of NP songs end with extended codas/bridges, which is essentially what the Unicorns do that gets them labeled "formless," except the Unicorns' endings are kind of misplaced, whereas the NPs' are brilliant blasts of pop. They're not experimental--they're just not good songwriters yet.

That said, I did really like one song on the disc, "I Was Born (A Unicorn)." Track this one down if you can. If I just heard that posted somewhere, I'd be excited for the whole disc, and hey, I'm willing to admit that maybe I'd have a different opinion about it than if my first exposure to them had been the PF review. (I'm willing to be persuaded...) It starts off with this great, rockin' drumbeat, drops in a perfect major-key guitar riff that I'll be humming all day, and then rides the riff well into the verse. The little two-string riff that goes under the vocals is perfect, as is the half-step vamp that closes it off. The singing on the chorus is kind of annoying, but it's also pretty funny, so it's OK. And then there's a break with handclaps! Yeah! This is one of the few places on the disc where the refusal to repeat riffs pays off. Also, I love bands' theme songs. (Like the All Girl Summer Fun Band's--man, is that good, and it does a similar thing.)

Gotta say something about the lyrics, though. PF says they're "sometimes smarmy," but they're really almost always smarmy, and worse, the disc leads off with a big dose of smarm. Maybe not even smarm: a smirk, a leer, a joke to make themselves seem smarter, which is the worst kind of joke there is. Guys, lay off it. Maybe you need to listen to Wayne Coyne a little more on this one.