Onto something different
The Unicorns bring their arty but epic rock to Chico
My dog Olive hates The Unicorns. The squirting, broken synth line that begins the song “Jellybones,” for example, sends her jumping from her nap, nervous and twitchy. Luckily for Olive, the synth line gives into the expansive guitar drone of the verse within the first half-minute, and she can return to dreaming of whatever it is dogs dream of. Probably smelling things.
Her owner, however, is not as fortunate. The quick transition has left me scratching my head: Was that really an intro? Where’s the hook? Why didn’t they play it four times in a row, like every rock band since 1955? Even before I’ve sorted those questions out, The Unicorns have finished the “verse” (can you call it a verse if they never go back to it?) and have moved onto something different, and I’m scrambling to catch up.
Onto something different. It’s hard to think of a phrase that could better encapsulate everything The Unicorns are. Well, except for maybe that oft-repeated phrase used for quirky bands: “They’re Canadian.”
The Unicorns were formed in the late-'90s by high-school chums Alden Ginger and Nick (Neil) Diamonds, a duo whose musical pursuits were outmatched by their ambition to get off of Vancouver Island. Eventually landing in Montreal, they met J’aime Tambeur, a drummer who kicked around for three years before Ginger and Diamonds finally relented and let him join the group.
OK, so maybe The Unicorns’ story thus far, while certainly Canadian, is not so different from any other band’s story. Standard boy-meets-boy-meets-boy stuff. But it’s about to get weird. After an obligatory self-release, The Unicorns next album, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?, was released by Alien 8 Recordings, a dinky company known—barely—for putting out noise records.
Despite this hindrance, the album sold well. Really well. The strong sales were supported by strong live shows and even stronger reviews containing such buzzwords as “lo-fi” and “epic” and “Grandaddy.”
But I like to think that its success was because of the songs. To be sure, the sound is lo-fi, but attractively so; there’s closeness there, like music made by a friend or a brother.
And it is true that there’s an epic quality to the music. Each song is a set piece, moving from section to section without looking back. “I Was Born (a Unicorn),” for example, is a dialog between the group’s songwriters and clocks in at less than three minutes, despite having six distinct movements.
The Unicorns tame this artiness with a devastatingly strong sense of melody. This is where the artist and the listener meet, and poor production values and difficult song structures are overcome and become meaningless.
The Unicorns are onto something different. They may be compared to Grandaddy and The Flaming Lips and Olivia Tremor Control, but these are just the graspings of music writers. Grasp this instead: Imagine that Paul McCartney has wrecked his bicycle into a vintage synth shop. That’s what The Unicorns are like. Exactly.
Live, the band is dangerous. Known for such antics as fixing peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for audience members and snappy between-songs banter, The Unicorns are frantic and fun. These live shows have cemented the band’s place in the hearts of the suede Puma crowd, but despite this damning truth, I won’t miss this show. Olive, however, will be home, dreaming of smelling things.