Unbunny: Sensory Underload: Uncertain Tracks 1996-2008
In Unbunny’s nimble hands, indie rock becomes a bit more majestic.
"Defending an idea that's beginning to grow thin," Unbunny's Jarid del Deo sings on Sensory Underload's opening track, "The Path". It's just a snippet of a lyric, and del Deo is talking about something else entirely, but it's fitting to pull that line to discuss Unbunny and indie rock.
Unbunny is classic 1994 confessional, singer-songwriter brand indie rock. It's early Elliott Smith, before the orchestra and Abbey Road, and it's early Built to Spill, before the guitar overload. Sensory Underload is a collection of songs garnered from the last dozen years, which of course only takes us back to 1996, but del Deo proves he's been all ears about either what preceded him musically, or the thoughts running between those ears as he learned guitar, or more than likely both.
With the internet accessibility of music and opinions these days, the genre that Unbunny exists in has been marginalized, not necessarily without reason. There are complaints of whining and self-absorption and, most recently, a lack of miscegenation (bring us da funk and world beats, white boys!). This is both true and, when the music is good, completely beside the point. This is the place where Sensory Underload exists. It's everything that some complain about and, by sticking to the formula and relying on absolute sincerity, it's a compelling listen beginning to end. There are all the typical flourishes -- slightly psychedelic guitar solos, violin fading in and out, double-tracked vocals -- but in Unbunny's hands they are neatly placed, serving to enhance the songs, adding atmospherics in the right spots. This release (ok, and let's throw in the new Deerhunter), can certainly back an argument that "indie" should be allowed to exist alongside the accepted formula of the "pop" song. It is what it is and that's enough to celebrate.
Not to harp on the negative to accentuate the positive, but take Sensory Underload's "X". The song is classic mope: "I'm still a fraud / I'm still a fake / I'm self-absorbed / I don't talk straight", sings del Deo. Brian Eno is name-checked. The guitar kicks in only in the last 50 seconds of four minutes. The world had heard this thousands of times. But it works. It works because del Deo doesn't relent from lyrical self-hate, and it works because he throws in small touches that stand out. "X" is a song that consists of less than a minute of verse at the start and then three minutes of chorus. The change-up does it good. It makes it interesting.
Other songs work their own magic. "Landscape Typing" features Juliet Nelson on guest vocals and survives by its own sheer prettiness. "Every Saturday" sounds like Grandaddy covering Neutral Milk Hotel's On Avery Island. "Dental Hygenist" allows two lonely souls to meet amidst life's distractions and one can't help but breathe a sigh of relief for them.
Sensory Underload, without being precisely great, manages to transcend the limitations that seem inherent in the genre. It's a frequently interesting and always charming collection. It stands out without relying on lame tricks and that should be given some extra weight in the world of musical copycats and uninspired descendants of most of James Taylor's catalog. Unbunny does things just right or as del Deo sings (about Superchunk) on "Mandi", "It's got all the guitar parts in all the right places."