Friday, September 23, 2011

Some Sung Heroes: Unwound's Leaves Turn Inside You

In my former life I reviewed CDs for a little known website called Night Times. I got this gig by penning slap-dash reviews of books and records on, all of which were so smart-assed I cringe at the thought of them. The editor of Night Times saw one of these reviews and emailed me, inviting me to expand it for her site. The rest is non-history.

One of the first CDs I reviewed for Night Times was Leaves Turn Inside of You, the 2001 masterpiece by Unwound. I was anxious to tell the world about what a great record this was. I wanted to celebrate something this ambitious that managed to not tip too far into that listener alienating style Radiohead was selling as “experimental.” I hoped that everyone would run out and buy the double CD and make the band deservedly famous. Oh how young I was!

Ten years later I am revisiting the record. Guess what? It still sounds amazing. The overdubbed, trebly guitar and whispery, ghostlike vocals of Justin Trosper; the underrated percussion of Sara Lund; the punk bass calmed to prog-rock proportions of Vern Rumsey; the mellotron, the cello, the droning two minute trance that starts the whole thing off! And that’s just the techie stuff. The themes, if any can be found, are eerie, for lack of a better description. Ghosts, demons, October, and December all figure prominently in the lyrics and their shadowy chill infects the whole damn vibe of this thing. The one mention of summer is in the song “Summer Freeze” which pretty much gives you an idea of what’s going on. Everything sunny and warm is rendered frozen and desolate.

But this is not a gloomy record. Sure, some of the songs are downbeat, and I will forever associate this record with 9/11, as I spent much of that Tuesday watching footage of the falling twin towers on a TV with the sound off as Leaves Turn Inside You played on the stereo. The song “Radio Gra” – a lurching instrumental— provided the perfect soundtrack for that inexplicable, surreal day. But there are oddly bright moments peppered throughout the two discs. In fact, the before mentioned demons sing love songs on of the more upbeat tunes. (Well, as upbeat as one might expect from this record.) While some of the lyrics are thankfully obscured (“trouble with the truth is double” is a pretty bad line), there are some fine moments, like when Trosper spits: “It’s every bastard for himself!/ The last century hasn’t ended yet!” It’s apocalyptic without succumbing to cheap, teen-age diary lyricism. I can’t claim to understand everything going on in this song, “Off This Century,” but, like most of the mood of the record, the doom is suggested as much by the minor keys as the odd lyric that bubbles up from the mix. The end result is, as I called it in my initial review, an ideal record for a four day rain storm.

And that is why I am revisiting this record today. Not because it is the ten year anniversary, though that is occasion enough. I am dusting off Leaves Turn Inside You because fall is here and this record feels like fall. It is the record I listen to when the leaves turn, fall, and die. It is not music to listen to while driving with the top down. It is a piece of art that exists in a specific time and place. Fall is my favorite time of the year perhaps because it is so brief, at least here in Chicago. Summer lingers and winter comes too quickly. They are rude guests whereas fall shows up, stays for a bit, and departs before you’d like, leaving you wanting more. Now that it's here, I’m happy for many reasons, high among them being the rekindling of my love for Unwound’s final record, one of the only from the early aughts that still sounds compelling.