splendid > reviews > 12/9/2003
The Unicorns
The Unicorns
Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?

Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "Sea Ghost"

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Everyone has had (or has been) a friend like the Unicorns. I'm talking about someone who's endlessly creative, hysterically funny and fearless ninety-five percent of the time -- but when he craves your attention, he's willing to step way outside the bounds of appropriate behavior to get it.

In a musical context, this translates to eccentric instrumentation -- stuff like pennywhistles and fingernails-on-a-blackboard keyboards, which the Unicorns deploy like flares on a darkened country road. There's nothing particularly wrong with this approach -- it just seems a little undignified. Gratuitous, even, particularly as Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone is perfectly capable of snagging attention and admiration without its most garish sonic accoutrements.

You see, there's a damn fine modern pop record lurking beneath all that filigree and silliness -- a clever combination of cut-price Flaming Lips weirdness and quintessential indie-rock indomitability, enlivened by a healthy disregard for genre barriers. Within that broad framework, creative inspiration strikes the Unicorns with avarice-inducing regularity. Squiggly analog garland and whistly bits notwithstanding, "I Was Born (A Unicorn)", "Ready to Die" and "Sea Ghost" could've been jewels in the jangly/twangy/eccentric Elephant 6 canon, if only more of those bands had waited 'til after recording to smoke up. "Sea Ghost" is a particular standout; while its pennywhistle intro seems misleading, the tune's sharply-delineated melody and two-chord glam-rock swagger make it an absolute joy to listen to. The subtle string enhancements at the end are icing on the cake. "Sea Ghost" will get stuck in your head like an errant tent spike.

Mind you, none of these songs follow the cut-and-dried routes foisted upon them by genre delineation. Though I've described a handful of Who Will Cut Our Hair's best tracks as Elephant 6-ish, it's a fleeting resemblance, readily defied by the Unicorns' scattershot aesthetic. The group slices and dices styles like little boys pitting red ants against black ants: "Ghost Mountain" forcibly combines twee-pop with IDM, "Jellybones" transmutes from synth-pop to lush acoustic earnestness, and "Let's Get Known" exaggerates indie-rock's worst excesses over a cloying Casiotone and drum-machine bed.

The group's more focused efforts are also fruitful. "Tuff Ghost" nails the über-trendy dance-punk sound with a dead-on Faint impression, and "The Clap" may make you wish that more emo acts would invest in keyboards. "Tuff Luff", heavy-lidded and audibly ready for a few microwave burritos, channels post-Beck beatbox-folk by way of Sergeant Pepper's, and the blustery "Innoculate the Innocuous" one-ups The Good Life in the jaggedly pretty synth-enhanced angst-rock stakes. Tim Kasher should be jealous.

The trick to consistently appreciating Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone is to focus on the band's skill (a pointer that seems obvious, but really isn't). Although much of the album sounds amateurish, and sometimes painfully so, the Unicorns regularly remind us that it's all shtick. They can full-on effing rock when the mood strikes them -- note the sinuous bass breakdown at the end of "Tuff Ghost", "The Clap"'s frenzied final refrain, and the lovingly-modulated discord in "Tuff Luff"'s goofy choruses. The kind of seemingly-spontaneous brilliance the group achieves on Who Will Cut Our Hair hints at extensive preparation and relentless fine-tuning -- either that or they have days of outtakes.

Do they squander all that creative karma with irritating analog synth blatting, self-conscious whistle-work and similar interstitial signposting? Nope; it just makes them seem a little over-eager. Once you've had a few rides on Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone's mad sonic roller-coaster, you'll understand their enthusiasm. You may even be flattered at the lengths they're prepared to go to in order to win your attention.



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