After years of producing music on limited distribution labels, Unbunny -- the guitar pop project of Jared del Deo -- has finally landed a deal with Parasol's Hidden Agenda to make a stab for larger, greener pastures. And judging from the promotion that Parasol has put into the disc and the fact that Unbunny is receiving some decent college radio airplay, it's working.
In many ways, it's unsurprising that Unbunny wound up on Parasol. It's yet another indie pop band mining the stomping grounds of Neil Young and Neutral Milk Hotel, and it sounds a lot like Elliott Smith. In other words, right up Parasol's alley and not a difficult sell for fans of the label's other output.
Much of Unbunny's appeal is summed up in the lead track and radio single, "Casserole". A leaden, waltzing song with a lethargic beat and built on spare notes from guitars and piano, the song immediately foregrounds del Deo's thin, slightly twangy voice, and it's clear that his vocals are the focal point of the band. The song immediately grabs your attention with the opening ambling verse of "All over town / The flat-chested trailer brides / Their braces and bottle caps / Jangle like tambourines", the words continue to draw you in, referencing slice-of-life imagery in a cinéma vérité sequence. The result is a song that's both intimate and oblique, and strangely affecting.
The problem with Snow Tires is that it can't maintain the same concentration. As sparse as it sounds, "Casserole" actually has a fair amount of instrumentation to prop it up, but as the disc progresses the music thins out further, often relying on basic acoustic guitar alone to carry the tunes. While del Deo's lyrics continue to interest, the high and reedy quality of his voice becomes as wispy as the melodies. It's somewhat charming, and often pretty, but it's not much of an anchor.
The best example of this is the contrast of "Nothing Comes to Rest" and "I Knock Things I Haven't Tried". The former has a low-end piano melody to ground the song, and del Deo's voice comes in deeper and more fully. While it's less gripping in its imagery than previous tracks, it's that much more effective for having more body. "I Knock Things I Haven't Tried", on the other hand, is basically guitar strum and del Deo's voice, with some slight sound effects and barely-there orchestration flittering in the background. Overall, it gives the effect that the song is happening "over there" -- around a corner, in a different room, or off in the distance -- and it ultimately just feels sleepy and diffuse.
This might be the very definition of bedroom pop recorded with minimal instrumentation on a four-track, but this disc has a studio behind it and the weakness lies in the songs themselves as much as the aesthetics of the production. "FM" and "Certain Lights" show how some variation in tones can bring better, more interesting songs out of the same performer. The bass, drums, electric guitar, and decidedly up-tempo composition makes "Certain Lights" feel like the one song on Snow Tires where Unbunny is given room to breathe. It even makes the Neil Young imitation on "Pink Lemonade", the track that follows, seem like a reflective pause rather than more of the same.
But the slow, smooth consistency of Snow Tires is ultimately Unbunny's undoing. Lo-fi pop albums featuring similarly thin vocals and sullen tones have succeeded when this one fails because they acknowledged that some variation is essential. But an album like this, where the same deliberate, shuffling pace is maintained more or less throughout, just leads to songs that bleed together into one mayonnaise of malaise. That the album-closing title track somehow manages to slow things down even further and make things even more somber is a feat, but hardly an exciting one.
Despite how critical this may seem, there's a lot to be said for Unbunny, and I can see how it captured the attention of Parasol's execs. As a solemn document of gray emotions, Snow Tires works, but at the same time it's hard to really feel enthusiastic about this disc.