Monday, December 14, 2009

#19. Unwound - Leaves Turn Inside You (Kill Rock Stars, 2001)

There are a lot of entries on these lists that find me using words in sentences together that shouldn't ever be in that position. Part of it goes back to my love of being surprised, my love or curveballs that offer a new view of what a band can and does apparently offer, but another part of it is that the cognitive dissonance associated with those odd word pairs never quite goes away, and thus each time that particular album gets played I'm always stuck on how off-format it sounds and thus paying closer attention and getting deeper into the intricacies of it. Any album can keep me focused on it with sheer quality, but to draw me in deeper than that it needs that additional hook, that x-factor that never seems to be the same from one album to the next. Any band can add in elements of classical and chamber music to their sound and make it good, but Oxbow does it and it's fascinating. Any band can take a left turn into quasi-progressive rock and pique my interest slightly, but Mew does it and they make...well, more on that tomorrow. And most importantly for today's post, any formerly noisy post-hardcore band can tone down the harshness to get my ears perked up, but something about the way that Unwound did that on their final (*sniff*) album, 2001's Leaves Turn Inside You, made it into one of the most satisfying albums of the decade.

Leaves Turn Inside You is pretty. An album made by the same trio that had unleashed the pure nihilism of "Star Spangled Hell," the feedback drenched maelstrom of "Were And Or Was Is" and the deadpan buzz of "Dragnalus" not even a decade prior to this had made an album that could only be described as pretty. The same band that defined 'noise rock' for me in my early days of musical discovery had made an album that was downright beautiful in places, only vaguely associated with the sort of music they'd been making for the better part of 10 years. I keep saying it over and over in my head as the organ buzz of "We Invent You" rises into a soothing near lullabye, as the mechanically precise "Terminus" edges towards an explosion that never quite arrives, as "Demons Sing Love Songs" revels in a sort of blissful euphoria that I wouldn't ever think Unwound were capable of...and that's just on the first disc of the double album. Of the 14 tracks here only "December" and "Scarlette" sound of a piece with the rest of the band's output, yet they also have the same dreamy haze that the rest of the album is drenched in so as not to stick out like a pair of sore thumbs. For the better part of 75 minutes Unwound became the most beautiful band on earth, and that transition didn't ever feel awkward. It's remarkable on quite a few levels, but most of all it makes for a damned impressive swansong.

It helps that the band's dynamic is so firmly established by this point that I'm sure they could have made any kind of album and had it fell this natural. The trio of guitarist Justin Trosper, bassist Vern Rumsey and drummer Sara Lund had been firmly together for a full eight years at this point, and if nothing else Leaves Turn Inside You is a demonstration of the sort of rapport that any group of players will develop over that long a period. Add to this the fact that they were working with longtime producer Steve Fisk and recording it at their own studio and it's got the makings of a very insular record, the sort of defining Unwound document that I'd thought Fake Plastic Ideas was for the longest time. Something about the environment surrounding it makes everyone seem on top of their game, Trosper's guitar isn't as manic as before but he's replaced that with a keen sense of texture and atmosphere - see "Demons Sing Love Songs" and "Below the Salt" - while Rumsey seems to be playing on a whole different level than he ever has in the past, taking on the melodic key role of "December" with aplomb. Lund takes to the calmer material quite well too, but her driving work on "Terminus" and "Scarlette" shows that she's still one of the most subtly complex and aggressive drummers out there. On top of that you've got expertly integrated strings during the non-climax of "Terminus" and a few other places and a set of songs that 90% of the band's peers would kill for.

Even if the album's off-format nature is the hook for me, it would fall apart if it was just a pretty Unwound album. If it had nothing more to offer than that I doubt it would be seen as anything more than an afterthought to their remarkable consistent career. As it is they went out by putting their best foot forward, and more importantly making sure that it was a foot we'd rarely seen before. I mourn their end but at least they went out on a blistering high note.

Song: "Look a Ghost"
MP3: "December"
Video: "Scarlette"
Song: "Below the Salt"

No comments: