Review Summary: Unwound's last kick is their most vital.
Journalists love narratives. In music, narratives help ground the otherwise heady ideas about aesthetics and artistry into meaty human stories. Even if those stories are sometimes exaggerated into myths.
Unwound's swan song, its opus (two words which conjure grandiose narratives themselves), is propelled by several seemingly incompatible threads: it is a work of singular identity, but it is produced by a band often pigeonholed as copycats or workhorses. It is the monument of a band who wanted to take unprecedented control over every aspect of recording it, yet barely a moment is wasted.
Back in 1993, Unwound more or less broke out, but their post-hardcore sound was destined to be subsumed into the giant wave of alternative rock, forgotten in the throngs of fans trying to glom onto any new sort-of-indie act with distorted guitars. Their identity became something of a poor-man's Sonic Youth, or that of a doggedly consisten band who released an album about every year to solid but unremarkable reviews. Unwound was the band to take for granted for eight years of its existence.
Even though Unwound grew measurably as a band over their first six LPs, no one could have predicted what the music on Leaves Turn Inside You was going to sound like. They had already released a double-LP, The Future of What
that was was arguably the weakest link in their arsenal (barring 1995's re-release Unwound
). So a 2-CD album with much longer songs and an overall greater length seemed sure to be a spotty affair.
... opens with “We Invent You,” trading in Unwound's cathartic down-tuned energy into a slow churn, Justin Trosper's double-tracked vocals reduced to a glacial falsetto drawl. Sara Lund pounds rolls on the snare and toms, giving the music a sense of woozy lumbering, or like storm clouds looming in the distance.
“Look a Ghost” is more traditional Unwound, but presenting a much more dynamic groove than they had ever had. The rhythm section deftly interlocks in a way that only several musicians who've played together for years can; making every swing and shift seem effortless.
Perhaps the most typical Unwound song on here is “Scarlette,” proving that Unwound can still do vigorous but intelligent post-hardcore. Rund's drumming again is methodical but powerful, undercutting the guitars which are Unwound at their most anthemic. But even here, the presence of mellotron and back-masked cymbals are indicators that this is a band not looking backwards.
There are two long songs on Leaves...
, but they seem far removed from Sonic Youth comparisons that dogged Unwound from day one. Yes, there are alternate tunings, but where on Murray Street
Sonic Youth were content to stretch their legs, Unwound carefully compacted every moment into a sonic assault, favoring building post-rock climax to free-form jamming.
Strings drone for around thirty seconds at the final quarter before giving way to a new section, dissimilar from the first six minutes' Godspeed You! Black Emperor homage, sounding more like Tortoise.
The follow-up track, “Demons Sing Love Songs,” is more hypnotic, based around a continuing groove. It results in one of the few moments where Unwound feel loose, though never meandering.
It's tough to find a weak moment here, and perhaps the only one is that the album is long. Even as each song is sharp and well-written, it can become a marathon. Unwound provide some respite in the various movements of their songs, so it is hardly a chore.
Unwound took over the production for Leaves
... and there are a few moments where it seems over-stuffed. But this density is more endearing than anything, showing how the band was brimming with new ideas at every turn. When the production is at its best, it's breathless.
The second to last song on Leaves
... is intensely sad. Not merely because it is downtrodden, minor-keyed and wistful, but because it is the last thing we would ever hear from Unwound and it might be the best we had ever heard.
Using their later-developed talent for slow churners, “Below the Salt” is based around simple but effective bass figures with overdubs in reverberating guitars and piano. Each moments develops its own singular purpose, heading toward an almost inevitable conclusion.
This is Unwound becoming their namesake, building ever so slowly out of sync, coming to terms with deadly impotence. Unwound lets us listen into their death rattles and it's nearly as unnerving as hearing Ian Curtis drowned out by synthesizers slowly going out of tune during one of his final performances of “Decades.”
But while Trosper may have some regrets, Unwound's legacy was secured with this album alone. I can't help but think there is some significance to one of the lyrics that closes it: “I meant for something new / To make anything true.” Undoubtedly Unwound did make something new, and went out on the truest note of their career.