Usually when I think of an album as quirky, it means that I’m glad somebody else owns it, but I’m not going to put down my cash for the gimmicky thing. With the Unicorns, though, I don’t know that a better word could define them, but there’s nothing of the novelty act about them. These two British Columbian wackos, Nicholas Diamonds and Alden Ginger, make genuinely great pop music that’s experimental, catchy, and, most of all, weird.
This debut album, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?, opens with a series of clicks, whistles, and tape noises before settling into a smooth melody and lyrics that express one of the disc’s major themes: death. “I Don’t Want to Die” maintains the vocal line and keyboard track, but adds in various sounds and effects as the concern about dying dies. “Tuff Ghost”, the next track—one of three straight with “ghost in the title—hinges on an up-tempo keyboard sound. The Unicorns describe this song as their “attempt to cash in on the disco punk sound”. There’s a bit of the band’s characteristic smirk here, as this band is neither disco punk nor attempting to “cash in” on anything (as revealed by the fact that they only get together a few times a year to record).
As the record continues, the aesthetic of the Unicorns begins to clarify itself. The band uses lo-fi recording techniques, bizarre sounds, and odd effects, but only to enhance their beautiful pop melodies and brilliant hooks. The weirdness, somehow, only develops the music at the root of their sound, rather than distracting from it. “Jellybones” serves as a fine example. It starts out with a basic keyboard line reminiscent of the music from the Mega Man games on the old 8-bit Nintendo. After 30 seconds, just before the novelty wears off, the pop music kicks in, and we get an upbeat little hospital number that climaxes with a reference to the Who’s “A Quick One, While He’s Away”. Instead of singing “cello cello”, the Unicorns sing “jell-o jell-o” and describe the title character.
The cleverness that would combine Nintendo-like sounds and Who allusions in a song about a trip to the emergency room runs throughout the album without becoming too overbearing or losing its heart. Even the goofy “I Was Born (a Unicorn)” is irresistibly full of goofy lines like “We’re the unicorns and we’re people, too”, but it also contains emotional gems like “I was born a unicorn / I could’ve sworn you believed in me / Then how come all the other unicorns are dead?” Diamonds and Ginger trade off comedic self-referential lines, and include a Vincent Price-like “If we agree they’re there, they’re there” over the drum break. It’s a fantastic song, and more fun than you should be allowed to have with a few lines and a great riff.
The ridiculously-titled Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? features tracks on death, ghosts, hospitals, and venereal diseases, and closes with “Ready to Die”. The Unicorns have taken us through a morbid little journey, but still need to remind us that “things conclude.” After the singer’s thought about Biggie Smalls, “seen the world [and] kissed all the pretty girls”, he’s got nothing left to do. He starts coughing and the record quits mid-cough, a fitting way for this record to end.
The Unicorns have many influences that are visible in their sound, including the Microphones, the Velvet Underground, and the aforementioned Who. Each track, and the record as a whole, though, are uniquely theirs. It’s a record that’s morbid and fun, clever and thoughtful, experimental and poppy. It’s the sound of a band graduating from quirky to idiosyncratic. It’s a moment marked not by “Pomp and Circumstance”, but by “The Clap”. Surprisingly, maybe, this ceremony is one of the year’s most enjoyable.