Nineties legends Unrest sort-of reunite, for an eccentric, personal album by one of their own.
One of Bridget Cross’s most lasting recorded moments with Unrest was “June”, off their 1992 album Imperial f.f.r.r.. The song put her trademark driving bass, and the trio’s equally typical musical cohesion, in service of a song about a father’s death that was atypically disarming for its emotional nakedness. The way her voice rises as she sings “Daddy / don’t go away”, is haunting, stunning.
After some opening piano notes, which will reappear at the album’s end, Maybe It’s Reno, Cross’s new project, picks up gear with a song similar in feeling to “June”. Titled “Baby’s Lost in Tracks”, it’s just as ominous and driving. It has a similar personal, intimate feeling, even while it pushes forward powerfully. Yet the sentiment expressed is more mysterious: “Baby’s lost in tracks / And he won’t come back / Someone sent me home / But it don’t do no good being alone." As the songs moves close to the seven-minute mark, the central sentiment repeats as the music progresses. Like “June”, it’s unsettling, and even more so the longer the song goes.
“Baby’s Lost in Tracks” is the most Unrest-like song released in recent years, and for good reason. As on most of this album, Cross is joined by her Unrest bandmates: Mark Robinson on guitar and Phil Krauth on drums. This album is a reunion of sorts, which is great news for those of us who consider Unrest one of the most interesting and exciting bands of the ‘90s. That they’re seldom written about in that regard is not surprising, as even at the time they often seemed to be quietly evolving, away from hype, at least outside the circle of devoted fans of their equally distinctive record label, Robinson’s Teenbeat. Teenbeat albums always had their own look, not unlike the way Robinson’s beloved Factory Records had its own particular design style. Cross’ insistent but melodic bass playing contained signs of Factory influence too, though Robinson’s guitar often shot upwards in an ecstatic pop direction.
It was the way the three of them played together, though, that made their music so special. On Maybe It’s Reno they’re playing as tightly together as ever. They also take the music in strange directions, reminicscent of the way Unrest would put high-pitched sounds in the middle of an album, or they way their career trajectory took them from a ragged punk band to a more polished, but no less strange, pop/rock one. Maybe It’s Reno quietly veers all over the place. “Days Like Cup” has dub-reggae tendencies. “Feathers and Wings” takes a pop song into weird dream-jazz territory. Cross’ low-to-high singing, her playful bass and Krauth’s eclectic rhythms take the song in some kind of ‘70s prog-pop direction, while Robinson adds a very Unrest-like guitar pattern.
The nearly static instrumental “Lullaby for Sophie”, roughly halfway through the album, acts as a cleansing moment, an intermission. After it the album gets even more varied. The travelogue “Sugarloaf Mountain” first sounds like a beat poem, before stretching out. Right after it, “Venice Itch” is a similar word-fast road-trip account. It’s sing-songy, like a song a kid would write on a whim, or like a punk-rock chant. Yet there’s a piece of the melody, underneath her vocals, that reminds me of a Muzak version of “American Woman”. Robinson’s guitar riff, again pleasantly Unrest-like, takes the song upward at the end. It ends as playful as it began, though happier in tone, with some nice goofy whistling thrown in for good measure.
The pairing of “Sugarloaf Mountain” and “Venice Itch” gives the second half of the album a more personal slant, like we’re listening to Cross’s travel diary. “Lone Star”, right after those, is similarly first-person but sadder, a lonely tale. It’s a rocker, reminiscent more of other strains of ‘90s rock. The piano is like what Spoon tends to do; the vocals over the crunchier music may remind you that Cross was in Velocity Girl back in the day. The messier “Drunk Pilot” recalls the punk beginnings of Unrest, though it’s one of two songs that feature other musicians on guitar and drums.
Though the musical touchpoints are present, to make too much of the Unrest connection would be a mistake. This is a Bridget Cross album. She wrote the songs. While the music gains strength from how well the three former members of Unrest play together, the songs come from Cross’s personality and experiences. At first it’s hard not to use the album as an opportunity to recall Unrest’s greatness. But as the album proceeds, getting more eccentric and varied, I hardly think of Unrest. Cross puts her own stamp on the album with each successive song. .Maybe It’s Reno ends back with it started, but also back where Unrest left off with “June”. That is, it ends with another sad song about her dad dying. This one is six months later -- “December”. And it’s a piano balled, the one previewed by the album’s opening seconds. With Krauth and Robinson not around, Cross ends the album on a personal note, taking the music in yet another direction, this time on her own. The lyrics recall “June”, but her presence on her own is a reminder that her songwriting and singing are the main reason “June”, like Maybe It’s Reno, is so compelling.