The Unicorns

Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?

(Alien8; 2003)

By Peter Hepburn | 25 November 2003

One minute and four seconds into "Tuff Luff," the 10th track on the Unicorns second album, the line "pop goes the ceiling on the routine," comes through your speakers. Of course, this is not news by this point in the record; the ceiling on the routine was blown off long ago. The Unicorns have created a beautifully sculpted pop gem that is remarkably original, unbelievably catchy, and, at times, quite emotionally affecting.

So first, a note on the band seems necessary. Like Broken Social Scene, the New Pornographers, and Hot Hot Heat, they do hail from the bastion of seemingly half of all great pop music being made today: Canada (when the hell did this happen and what is being to assure that this trend continues? Can we move the Wrens to Vancouver? Could we move Dashboard Confessional to the gulags of Siberia to suffer horrible torture for making…oh wait, that’s a different plan). The record is released on Alien8 recordings, a mainly experimental label. There were only two members in the band for the making of this album, although you wouldn’t know it. There is a good interchange of vocals between the two and all the tracks are completely fleshed out by a number of guest musicians.

The music itself is driven by extremely simple keyboard lines and pounding drums. The occasional great (and by great I mean catchy, not technically proficient) guitar line bursts in, especially noticeable on "Sea Ghost." The Unicorns have also chosen to avoid standard verse-chorus-verse molds, which is almost a shame because some of the lyrics are so good you’re left wanting to hear them again (certainly "Let’s Get Known" would have benefited from a second run through the chorus).

The album has an overwhelmingly morbid air to it, which is especially disconcerting given the upbeat, sugary delivery. The first track encapsulates this well. "I Don’t Wanna Die" opens with some loose drumming which cuts out and then you’re confronted with muffled lyrics about how the singer foresees his own death in a number of gory manners (plane crash, car accident). Just as the vocals start getting grating, the second singer comes in with clear, lighter vocals with a response that balances perfectly against the other. The next three tracks are ghost related. “Tuff Ghost” has a particularly driving keyboard line, nicely accentuated by guest drummer J’aime Tambour (who performs on a number of the songs). The lyrics, about how life is as a ghost on earth, aren’t particularly great, although the hook beginning with the lines “I lift weights but I don’t sweat / I go swimming but I don’t get wet” is quite good. This track comes as close as this record gets to dance-punk. “Ghost Mountain” opens with some fuzzed out drums and is, according to the band, a “tale of colonialism blanketed in taut metaphor.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but the chorus, focused on in this song, is clever and the near-constant introduction of new instruments and melodies as the song progresses is impressive. “Sea Ghost,” the first single, is opened with a penny whistle which is then joined by a simple drum section and a guitar line that manages to both be awful and make you want to dance uncontrollably (always an accomplishment). The bizarro lyrics dealing with a guy who dives into the sea in hopes of removing a parasite are matched in weirdness only by the simple beauty of the hook toward the end of the track.

“Jellybones” is quite possibly the catchiest song on the album, which is saying a lot. The Casio-style keyboards drag you in, the quick vocal and electronic changes won’t let you go, and the chorus has to be heard to be believed (nonsensical as it may be). “The Clap” is the album’s most straightforward song, and the lack of the originality that informs the rest of the record definitely guts it, though the terrific drum line in the latter half comes close to saving it. Probably the weakest track, at least lyrically, is “Child Star,” a two-sided story of a former star and an admirer who has lost interest. The Unicorns do a good job switching up the tone for the two distinct halves of the song and then melding them together at the end.

“Let’s Get Known” opens up the second half of the album with fuzzy radio interview samples and then switches to a very simple keyboard/vocal combination backed up by a drum line even Meg White could play. The real fun starts up again with “I Was Born (a Unicorn).” Another infectious, mediocre guitar line gives way to the brilliant lyrics “I was born a unicorn / I missed the ark but I could have sworn / you’d wait for me.” The interchanges between the singers are great and then the track veers off in a new direction and we get hand claps and some sampled lyrics about dreams, at which point they veer back in. They bring it back by dropping out the rest of the instrumentation and focusing in solely on the drum beat which then explodes back out in a burst of guitar.

The last four songs on the album are bound together well. “Tuff Luff” opens with a vocal that has got to be a reference to Kim Deal’s yell at the beginning of “Where is my Mind?” The beat that develops is driven by a penny whistle and fiddle (but in the good way) and the lyrics are some of the best on the album. Who can resist such lines as: “can’t you see you’ve got honorable mention / can’t you see you’ve got no pension plan.” The track never settles into a fixed groove and the penny whistle/fiddle combo drops out occasionally, leaving only a bass line. Of course, at about 2:40 the beat changes radically for all of six seconds to a break beat with rapped lyrics about nuclear war. But, by this point you’ve gotten used to never knowing what’s gonna hit you next, which makes the next track especially breathtaking.

“Inoculate the Innocuous” is the emotional heart of the record. It opens with a simple, repetitive guitar line and has all the markings of a standard rock/pop song, but then at 1:09 it settles into a quiet, reflective song. “Somewhere in the asshole of my eye / there’s a muscle which relaxes when you cry / somewhere in the eye of my mind / there’s a muscle that makes me go” is sung over a quiet electronic drone and slow drum beat. But then the electronics expand outward beautifully and within a minute the guitar line is back, only to drop out again at 2:46 with what may be the most clever and at the same time gripping lyrics of the album: “reflect on your absence / genuflect in my presence / remove your abscess / they say it’s cancer.” Whereas the first such breakdown was followed by an electronic response, here we get a full band playing. It’s almost reminiscent of one of Jeff Magnum’s funeral dirges in both its darkness and orchestration.

“Les Os” picks the pace back up with a rapid fire drum line and builds to some of the highest points on the record. Dark, morbid lyrics are central to both it and the final track, “Ready to Die.” Don’t worry; they know it’s been done and even name check Biggie. It’s not a standout song, but it finishes the cycle about life and, much more, death that the album has built up.

Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? manages to blend simple instrumentation, dark, sinister lyrics and some truly remarkable vocal talents in a format that eschews formal structure in favor of great originality. This is an easy top 10 add.