Dead and Leaden
Unicycle Loves You is a band that is constantly evolving and changing its sound from record to record, for good or for ill. Their first, self-titled album is described as being jangly power pop from the publicist, while the next album, Mirror, Mirror was more new wave. Failure, from 2012, was much more of a garage-pysch album that paid homage to the likes of Guided by Voices. Their new, fourth album, The Dead Age, was mastered by Shellac’s Bob Weston, and if that’s not enough of a tonal cue for you, consider if the Jesus and Mary Chain had joined forces with some ‘90s shoegazer band, and that would be what you’d get with this album.
But what The Dead Age ultimately winds up being is a sort of career suicide record – if Unicycle Loves You is well known enough for the term “career suicide” to be bandied about – that is strictly uncommercial and unpolished, with plenty of guitar fuzziness and feedback. On the plus side, this is a record that was meant for vinyl, with its needle in the red fidelity and harshness. On the minus side, The Dead Age is a hookless album, and you’ll need to listen to it four or five times before the songs all start to become undistinguishable from one another. Problem is, most of those songs are fairly unmemorable to say the least. Still, you can’t say that The Dead Age isn’t consistent. It is, and how.
Thing start off with a chugging first single, “Falling Off”, that is fairly memorable in that kind of JAMC jangle way. But things somewhat fall off from there. “We Never Worry” is atonal and shrieking in its feedback drone, with a song buried beneath the surface, trying to make its way through. “Suicide Pizza” starts out being more of the same, all distorted guitars and background tricks, before turning into a more conventional jangle pop number that is quite delicious with a loopy chorus. “Silent Minus”, though, is mere filler – an interstitial piece that does absolutely nothing to move the momentum of the album along. “Face Tattoo”, meanwhile, is pretty much a replica of “Falling Off” and by this point you may be wondering why the band ever bothered with an LP. Wouldn’t an EP serve this material better? Nevertheless, it is what it is. “JAWS” is simply buzzy guitar work that sounds a lot like the amplifiers the instruments are being filtered through have been slashed with a razor blade. The vocals are buried and reverb heavy, hardly discernible. It isn’t until you get to “Bad News Club”, which vaguely sounds a lot like vintage Sonic Youth, that you get to the record’s highlight and centerpiece. It’s the kind of thing you can bop along to in your basement, and makes you wonder how this album would have turned out with more songs in this vein.
“Endless Bummer” takes its time to get moving, and sounds vaguely ‘60s in a psychedelic way. “Any Daydreaming Morning” is kind of interesting in that it’s a take on classic doo wop sounds, but it’s otherwise languid and stops the sequencing of the album dead cold. “Grownups” is the most overtly Dinosaur Jr.-esque moment on the record, just without the laconic vocals. “X-ray Glaze”, meanwhile, is just another short filleresque interstitial piece that really has no purpose. This all leads into the final song, the title track, which is also the longest on the album, being five and a half minutes long. It’s more of a thrashy number, but it really doesn’t stick with the listener. At which point, you might just be wondering: what is the whole point of this exercise? To show how versatile the band is by genre hopping between albums? Or it is something else? God, I don’t know. I walk away from this album just wondering where the “songs” are. As a conceptual piece, I suppose it works. But as something with stuff you can cherry pick and put on a mix CD, not so much. (The fact that Unicycle Loves You genre hops so much is going to make it difficult to put out a Greatest Hits-type collection in the future, because there simply would be no flow.)
I can’t say that I’m not disappointed in The Dead Age. I generally liked the outfit’s previous album, Failure, and have to really question why there’s the sonic about-face. And, I would imagine that, based on the evidence on display here, the next album (assuming there is one) is going to mark another complete seismic shift in sound and tone. The members of Unicycle Loves You, I suppose, are content on being musical chameleons, but, to me, it just seems that the band is ... bored. Rather than adopt a signature sound and hone it, this is a group that just wears different masks or personas. And the effect is rather snooze inducing.
Look, the Beatles evolved and matured over the course of their seven or eight years as recording artists. However, that was growth. Unicycle Loves You, on the other hand, isn’t growing. It seems as though they’re just adopting new sounds for the sake of it, for no other reason than the fact that, perhaps, they were able to line up Weston as a masterer, or maybe they thought that going the scuzzy route might be a way to garner more attention and maybe move more units among the psych crowd. I don’t know for sure. Still, the change in sound is such a flip-flop, you really have to think about what’s going on here and what the motivation is or was.
That said, The Dead Age isn’t a complete washout: if anything, it is intriguing in its best moments. Overall, though, this is a pretty dull record that doesn’t excite the listener – you’ve heard this all done before on Psychocandy or Darklands or elsewhere – and if one thing can be said about The Dead Age it is that it’s pretty dead and leaden, if not the sound of a complete retread, even though Unicycle Loves You is so desperately and pointlessly trying to rework its signature style from album to album.
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