Leaves Turn Inside You
Kill Rock Stars
By: Eric Greenwood
Unwound is finally back, but you may not recognize the sound. The trio's seventh album is far and away its most ambitious and musically diverse. The departure is immediately obvious. Where past albums like New Plastic Ideas and Repetition balanced odd syncopation with controlled noise and punk structures, Leaves Turn Inside You abandons much of the chaos and explores a more melodious however experimental side. Most conspicuous is guitarist/vocalist Justin Trosper's vocal tone. His bratty half-yell has morphed into full-fledged singing. No more bored detachment and monotone inflections- Trosper has replaced them with a softer, more delicate and sentient tone. This is still Unwound- just a more musically adept, experimental, and confident one.
Leaves Turn Inside You is a double-album- Unwound's first, and it is the band's most fully realized musical achievement. Trosper and bassist, Vern Rumsey, built their own home studio to avoid the time constraints of recording in a big studio on somebody else's dollar. The result is a less spontaneous but meatier batch of songs. Unwound has never eschewed the use of effects, and they are now an integral part of the band's sound, ranging from keyboards, strings, and odd percussion to massive atmospheric layering and multi-tracked vocals. The songs match intricacy with an unforeseen grace. Melody is no alien concept to Unwound, but previous albums like The Future Of What certainly forsook it for abrasiveness. Blame that on the stubbornness of youth or punk ethos- it doesn’t really matter now because Unwound has found its future.
“We Invent You” is a shocking opener. I had to double-check the label to make sure I had the correct disc playing. Ghostly keyboards engulf a simple, clean guitar melody and Trosper's newly developed harmonies. The absence of bass gives the song an ephemeral feel, although Sara Lund's robust drumming certainly holds it together. Unwound has never let its guard down like this before. Trosper sounds so open and vulnerable when he promises: “I'm coming soon.” “Look A Ghost” is slightly more familiar with its winding arpeggio, but still Trosper's breathy vocal takes some getting used to. “December” is the first song where Rumsey's bass unfurls with its patented, snaky attack. Three years has totally reinvigorated and redefined Unwound.
The band's last full-length, 1998's Challenge For A Civilized Society, hinted at some of the new directions explored here, but it relied too heavily on established sound structures that were definitively 'Unwound.' That album also lacked the energy and intensity of the band's early output, despite being a solid album in its own right. Unwound had taken its formula to its necessary end, and there was nothing left to discover. Leaves Turn Inside You clears a brand new path for the future. Epic tracks like “Terminus I-II-III” celebrate such new found freedom. Orchestral strings sweep in four minutes into the song while the guitar and bass erupt in manic interplay. After a climax of screeching strings the song switches gears completely, kicking into a mesmerizing groove comprised of dueling guitar overdubs, warm analogue keyboards, and subdued but tight rhythms.
“Demons Sing Love Songs” is easily one of the finest songs Unwound has ever written with its velvetly riffs, haunting keyboards, propulsive drumming, and Trosper's most beautiful and affecting vocals yet. The effects-laden chorus sends shivers down the spine. It's slightly distant and sad, but it's got a gorgeous hook. “Off This Century” is the first song on the album to revisit blatantly Unwound's aggressive past. The harsh staccato guitars swell over Rumsey's thick, entangling bass. Trosper lets loose vocally too- not quite reaching the extremes of his early days because of the obscuring effects, but the tension is duly noted. So as not to seem too comfortable the band throws in loads of odd tonal shifts and layers of washed out keyboards.
“One Lick Less” sounds like an organic version of Loveless-era My Bloody Valentine but heavier and more potent. Trosper indulges his lower vocal register, which hangs beneath the meandering swell of guitar noise. It all ebbs and flows in long, languid waves. Truly unbelievable stuff. “October All Over” blends a wiry guitar/bass exchange with an awkward but danceable disco beat. Trosper's insular vocals pan in one ear while the intricate guitars uncoil in the other. Only a band that's been together as long as Unwound could pull off such complicated dynamics. Trosper's sprawling guitar playing alone can rip your heart out, tear it to pieces, and stitch it all back together again, as he proves on the eerily moving “Summer Freeze.”
In the wake of the post-Nirvana signing frenzy in 1994, major labels tried to tempt Unwound into sucking off the corporate teat. The band wisely opted to remain independent with its home at Kill Rock Stars, sacrificing short-term fame for long term artistry. This all but guaranteed the band would never see success on the level of some of its less principled peers. But even if Unwound were never to break out of the stable underground, where it has amassed a reverent following in ten years of recording and touring, it's influence will continue to spread, eventually clawing its way to the surface. Albums like this one ensure it. Leaves Turn Inside You is a monumental album by a monumental band.