To use the word "sophisticated" when talking about the 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 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 North Carolina. "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, 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 ridden high on CMJ's North American radio charts for months and was the No. 1 bestseller on the indie-retail Web site Insound for many weeks in late 2003 and early 2004, rarely slipping out of the Top 15 since its release. Recently, the Unicorns were among the highlights of San Francisco's esteemed 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 & roll? Perhaps the Unicorns just found themselves in the right place at the right time, when listeners 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 both were part of a street-'blading hockey team in high school. The two 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, typically an experimental label. In early 2003, Unicorns Are People Too was released.
Ginger laughs when asked 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 midsize-to-large venues in the States. Their concerts were as chaotic and ragged as their records, a fact that resulted in 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. Dressed in their token pink-and-white costumes, the Unicorns can hardly be taken as anything but wacky goofballs.
Much like that of their predecessors Pavement, the Unicorns' "don't give a fuck" ethos 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.
In presenting absurdity without hesitation, Who Will Cut Our Hair traffics in ultimate weirdness. 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 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, such as 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, such as "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.
It all adds up to 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 worshiped Ben Gibbard's and Conor Oberst's confessional pop just a few years back. Even the ultracorporate, 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 tipsy 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 losing its juice. Sophisticated or not, the Unicorns, with their devotion to horned horses, odd characters and frantic chord changes, may be one of the precursors to the next decade of indie pop.