Monday record review 3/12/2012: Unsane, "Visqueen"

1. In a Las Vegas dive bar on Friday night, Noah and I talked to this guy wearing a Mason hat. I told the guy about my one experience with the group: Rebecca and I went to an open house, and the guy giving the tour wouldn’t look me in the eye when we shook hands.

“You didn’t go back?”

“No,” I told the guy wearing the hat.

“So you quit.”

2. After years of hearing about the man’s work, I finally made my way through some of Cormac McCarthy’s stuff last year. Notice I didn’t say “read.” That’s not the right verb. It’s not light, or, often, pleasurable. It’s a slog. Completely dispelling all ideas of myth, all thoughts and glamour by rubbing the reader’s face in a ridiculous, unsentimental body count, the codified Hollywood system of badges, and white & black horses. There’s a convincing argument to be made that, like Kenneth Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight, the rough ride is inherent: if you want to live what it was like, no easy read will suffice.

Last Man Standing

3. I was so smitten with Unsane’s debut LP—one of Matador’s first handful of releases—that I hung a picture of the band in my high school locker. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I got a chance to see them, except I didn’t: the Middle East had changed their age policy from 19+ to 21+. So, despite driving down to Boston from New Hampshire, I didn’t get a chance to see Unsane play (Terry G went around the corner to TT’s, intent on seeing a show if it killed us, and caught an insane Engine Kid / Crain / Grifters / Codeine show instead). The band, miraculously, was parked in front of the club, so we went to talk to them, kinda hoping they’d invite us in. But they didn’t offer, and we didn’t ask.

4. For years, the production on Unsane albums was—what? Not lo-fi, exactly, but muted in such a way that their sound made sense. Like being covered with a blanket in the back of a car trunk being taken down a bumpy backroad. Vocals were—and are—hoarse but articulate, distant, high-pitched over the band’s no-frills riff din. So the expansion of the sound on Visiqueen, the band’s 2007 album, was a bit surprising. After all, their overall aesthetic hadn’t changed since my high school days. Their b-movie gore branded them visually, and the music fit right in with the look.

But better production values help the band. There’s more space to hear everything that’s happening. Vocally, Chris Spencer is still as pissed off and hoarse as he’s ever been, but his lyrics are more discernible throughout. Everything’s a bit crisper, but still sludgy and chunky.

Against the Grain

5. I didn’t check in with Unsane for years, so, in catching up on their back catalogue, I was surprised to hear slide guitar and harmonica in their work. But, like the enhanced production, it made sense: the band has been doing their thing, visually and musically, for a long time. They’re not interested in jumping trends or kowtowing in any way. The addition of odd, seemingly non-brutal instrumentation is both a “fuck you” to fans who think they have the band pigeonholed, and an extension of their aesthetic: they sing about the miseries of everyday life in the city—heavy a la the best stuff on AmRep, toe to toe with their ‘90s pigfuck peers. What is this kind of music if not an irksome howl? It’s no stretch to call this stuff, with its occasional Western swing, the blues.

6. I buy way too many tee-shirts. Ask my wife: my dresser drawers bulge under the weight of all these shirts I don’t have the days to wear. But even though Unsane’s designs should be right in my wheelhouse—black, sparse—I won’t wear a lot of their designs. Like their new one, in the ubiquitous album release bundle: a meat cleaver. Can I wear a shirt with a cleaver that says Unsane above it? I’m not sure I can pull it off. The Masonic one, though, definitely.

—Mike F.

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