Unwound: Leaves Turn Inside You

Leaves Turn Inside You
Kill Rock Stars

What the hell is post-post-punk? Well, let’s work backwards: punk rock was slammin’ good times before fracturing into millions of subgenres, at which point it turned into a music critic suffix waiting for any ol’ kind of prefix: “glam-punk”, “ska-punk”, “cow-punk”, “techno-punk”, “jazz-punk”, “pop-punk” (okay, technically this one is usually “punk-pop”, but, y’know, parallel structure and all), and the dreaded “post-punk”.

This was the mass grave of critical terms, the pit where nerdy bespectacled yobbos like us used to throw every band that had both the ability to slam and the wisdom not to do it all the freakin’ time already. we didn’t know how to deal with. Is Radiohead post-punk? Was Pavement post-punk? Were Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins post-punk? How about Metallica and Anthrax? The Pixies? Hüsker Dü? What about the Minutemen? What about X, who were the first ones to ask “What about the Minutemen?” Hell, there are those who claim that the Clash themselves weren’t punk, and that the Sex Pistols were wannabes. Hence, the useful and meaningless label of “post-punk”. It’s easy to throw that in for any band with a deep love for, and some perspective on, punk rock music.

But, like all labels, it ceased to mean anything once it was used for the squintillionth time. It turns out that there were a whole buttload of bands like that. But there has been a big chunk of bands that have come along lately that seem to be a reaction to post-punkers, groups that throw prog and free-jazz and math-rock and electronic drones into the mix. These bands range from some of the better alt.metal bands like Tool and At the Drive-In and serial meanderers like Jackie-O Motherfucker and Trans Am to keening Icelandic weirdos Sigur Rós and string-laden ensembles like Godspeed You Black Emperor! None of ’em like conventional song structures, and none of ’em are afraid of that old overlooked canard called melody. Hell, that’s not even mentioning the whole Scots branch (Mogwai and Aereogramme) or anyone in Japan (Boredoms, Acid Mothers Temple, Buffalo Daughter, OOIOO, ad infinitum). Or Love As Laughter, whom I love dearly despite the fact that they have the worst band name EVER.

Since I am a critic, I must label them. (Don’t hate me — it’s my job.) And, for that purpose, I am retroactively inventing the label “post-post-punk”. It’s ugly and undescriptive, but now you know what I’m talking about when I say that this album, by Tumwater trio Unwound, will someday be thought of as the record that killed this movement before it even had a name. Killed it…with kindness.

Leaves Turn Inside You is a 74-minute album that comes on two separate CDs. They could have taken off the video tracks and made it into one huge disc, but that would be too much, and spoil the pacing beyond repair. “We Invent You” leads off, with some dysfunctional electronic tones that turn into gentle hushed guitar exercises that give way to a slow dinosaur plod with sad layered vocals: “Save your grace / I’m coming soon.” Singer/guitarist Justin Trosper has emotions but isn’t emo; bass player Vern Rumsey has studied his Mike Watt-isms in terms of solid but non-showoffy support; drummer Sara Lund is out of character as an actual musician instead of the wild tub-thumpin’ indie superwoman she has been on previous releases. By the time “Save your grace” has turned into “Savior’s gaze”, we are entirely in their world — a cloud world, a mysterious place full of ghosts and demons.

That helps, actually, considering that the next song is “Look a Ghost”. It’s a real ghost story, all right, couched in Televisionesque guitar lines and a funky jazzy drum part. “December” and “Treachery” both seem to be about actual humans, but they keep us squarely in the ballpark of the not-quite-said, the half-thought that never gets voiced, “The whims that govern conversations.” Unwound plays with a tightness and richness that few bands can touch anymore; they have turned into the metal Minutemen. So we aren’t really all that surprised when “Terminus” takes more than 9 1/2 minutes to reach its own terminus, spiked with lyrics like “Cake me I’m not cooked / Fake me I’m not fucked” and “Hold me I’m a gun / Six shots and I’ll be gone”. When they’re done with words, it all goes into a couple of lengthy instrumental sections packed with pizzicato-sounding arrangements, and then back to discordant string caterwauling, and ends up with something that sounds nothing at all like it used to.

Side One ends with two perfect jams. First, the best post-post-punk song ever, “Demons Sing Love Songs”. This is just heartrendingly pretty music with an edge — and oh, shit, what an edge! Set to minor-league descending triplets, Prosper complains about himself in timeless emo-derived fashion: “I’m the monster standing by your heart / A lifesize figure ashamed to be alive”. On the chorus, Janet Weiss from the sainted Sleater-Kinney and Quasi chimes in on backvox to bolster Prosper: “Love’s a demon / Love’s a demon”. Not just sweet; not just provocative; it’s as true as when X told us that “True love is the devil’s zoot suit.” And “Off This Century”, which could be a Gang of Four song remade by R.E.M., spews some nice little political vitriol our way: “Everything is a commercial. we advertise our memories / We leave our shit on silver platters and then we buy whatever’s left.” It’s really quite ugly and perfect.

Better rest before Side Two, because when “One Lick Less” squirms into hearing you’ll swear you’re rockin’ to Pearl Jam — it’s that somnambulistic. “Scarlette” fares a bit better, with a tense choppy background and angry dumped-boyfriend rhymes like “Scarlette / Did you know that you’re the one? / The one that raised the fuckin’ sun?” Of course, they’re so distorted that you’ve gotta be nose-first in the lyrics to figure that out, but that’s why lyric sheets are printed, dude, and make no mistake. “October All Over” takes its time to make its point, which is that Seasonal Affective Disorder sucks royally, but sounds great if it’s set to a wonderful disco-punk beat. The seasonal thing ain’t over, either: “Summer Freeze” is the one that stays in my head longest, even though its hooks take a couple of minutes to reveal themselves, and its lyrics seem to be describing some kind of Shackleton expedition of the heart.

But that’s where Leaves Turn Inside You, and the entire post-post-punk generation, run out of ideas. The instrumental “Radio Gra” could be a very good parody of and/or homage to Sigur Rós, except without the madeup language screeched in contralto; its inevitability and impenetrability are perfect, and perfectly boring. The almost-11-minute “Below the Salt” is pretty much the same thing, except slower and more pointless — yes, there are words, but they really don’t matter. It’s all about the texture, which is fine if there’s enough texture, but pretty brutal if there isn’t any. One of the reasons to love Doves is that they can carry off a 10-minute slow track with attitude and evocative sonics — but Unwound here shows themselves to be no kind of Doves. They try, man, but that’s about it. And then the whole thing sputters to a stop with the fakey old-jazz-style instrumental/extended sample called “Who Cares”. Indeed.

Look: Unwound — which just broke up for what is apparently the last time — was a great band, and this was their greatest record. One cannot imagine post-post-punk music without thinking of this record: the good as well as the bad. The problem here is that sooner or later everyone falls into the traps that he or she sets. And on side two of this album, Unwound flies too close to the sun, or something, and its wings melt, and it falls into the ocean, only to be reborn as three or 12 different bands down the line. But none of them will be playing post-post-punk, because after this CD, there’s literally nowhere else to go.