Life is sweet’n bitchin’ for Bunky. Centered on Emily Joyce, on pop-rocks tweets and diesel burnin’ rhythms, and Rafter Roberts on beef jerky riffs and shy boy gazes, this pair of San Diego recording engineers get their musician kicks here with an all-star cast of indie illuminati. Said illuminati also gig around town with groups like the Black Heart Procession, Pinback, Rocket From the Crypt, Album Leaf, GoGoGo Airheart, and the Castanets, among others. With a membership of around twelve—not all at the same time, though—Joyce and Roberts preside over a clubhouse of freewheeling inner children: all playful jokes and a cheerful sense of abandon one moment, stuttering hearts and fluttering eyelashes the next. The results on Born to be a Motorcycle—the band’s “debut”, which culls recordings from 2002 to 2004—are songs slithering with Elmer’s and patched together out of colored elbow macaroni (“I wanna glass of water!”), yet as irresistible as dandelions and fleeting slo-mo moments (“Girl, you know you look so pretty in that dinosaur outfit”). This balance of personalities, sounds, and emotions make Motorcycle uniquely Bunky.
Musically, Bunky often conjoin hard-riffing, choppy drums, horn vibrato and sweet vocals to fuse the child and the adult within each song. Joyce opens “Funny Like the Moon” with a vaguely Petra Haden vamp, channeling child-like wonder with her airy tone, yet simultaneously singing with an adult’s robustness. Unabashed romanticism and youthful fantasies abound with images and impressions like “You’re scattered like the stars, / Polka dots in the night / That swim around the room like freckles lost in flight”. Of course a dirty drumroll kicks the song up a gear and down the open road, speeding to the line, “I was born to be a motorcycle!” The juxtaposition is rough and patchwork—Starry Night versus Bad Route—but incredibly sincere. Even when Bunky sticks to one instrumental theme, such as the driving guitars and horns on album opener “Baba”, the rock is balanced with the (soda) pop, such as when Joyce coos, “All the kids, swimmin’ in the deep end / Goin’ blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah”. Bunky’s two-face mugs prettiest on “Gotta Pee”, kicked off by chiming bells, sax farts, and static before freaking out on guitars, as well as Joyce’s knock-kneed nerves and bursting joy: “So, who the hell cares, / Cos I’m only playin’ out on a dare, / In a band with the man of my dreams . . . Gotta pee!” The twin tones, focused drive versus gasping impulse, are the constants that form the charm of these lil’ rascals.
Bunky also succeeds by pushing the melodic and instrumental sensibilities of its multi-talented constituency to their limits. “Yes / No” creepy crawls around a low-end line of horns and guitars in parallel motion before cooling out on the bridge with a clipped brass line. “Boy / Girl” opens with lime-in-the-coconut thirds, all Nilsson cool, before bundling up the tension with vocal sustains and horns. Random static, tape loops, and noise burps a la Arm of Roger add to the freaknik quality, before closing with beautiful harmonies. Not to be pigeonholed in the weirdness, Bunky bounces with Everclear abandon on “Chuy”. Its a familiar rock tune constructed on a standard guitar-bass-drums template, but the closing section throws a subtle curve: horns that follow the lead guitar before stripping away everything except for a carefully plucked guitar and Emily’s naked voice. Once again, the effective and rock-solid meet the affected and flowery.
Surprisingly, Bunky pauses for serious reflection on the last third of Motorcycle. Syrupy Chet Bakerisms state the melody on “Cute Not Beautiful”—Rafter and Emily trade loving, gradually building volume and tempo while maintaining a sense of restraint. The band’s attention to detail becomes most apparent in the transitions from song to song. The overblown drama of “Cute” is closed with an applauding introduction for “Glass of Water”, which gallivants through a muted trumpet, chunky guitars, and a caterwauling vocal. “Glass” reaches a fever pitch, but stops on a dime to shift to the slow and swaying cowpoke stroll of “Heartbunk”. The sole sore thumb of the batch is the tender spaceman pop of “Lipstick Life”. Rafter’s Elliot Smith-like whisper and shiver displays a previously unheard frailty which is quite remarkable, but has a ghastly pallor next to Motorcycle‘s rosy-red hue.
For all of Bunky’s sparkle and charm, Motorcycle certainly appeals most to fans of the group. In the end, charisma trumps technique, a familiar smile means more’n a stranger’s allure. That said, the band certainly evinces enough humor and hooks to make converts. The band’s ginormity makes regular touring or recording highly unlikely, so ride the hog while you can.