It doesn’t take a genius to notice all the echoes of the 70s in the 90s. Queen and Led Zeppelin have never been more popular, and Neil Young has scored his biggest successes in years by recording two albums that sound exactly like ones he recorded 20 years ago. New bands are also getting in on the trend: Blind Melon sounds an awful lot like the early 70s Grateful Dead, and grunge bands like Tad and the Melvins sound just like Black Sabbath. Unrest, a trio from Washington, D.C., and Stereolab, a Franco-British sextet, share the impulse to borrow from the 70s, but their sources are somewhat less predictable. Both owe a heavy debt to Can, Faust, and Neu, a trio of German bands who were themselves inspired by the Velvet Underground. They spent the 70s developing a style that emphasized trance-inducing grooves and unusual keyboard and guitar textures; the critics dubbed it Krautrock.
But the parallels between Unrest and Stereolab don’t stop with their affection for obscure German art rock. Both bands have released major label debuts this year with sumptuous vocal arrangements that are heavily influenced by Burt Bacharach’s exceedingly middle-of-the-road bachelor-pad pop. Some canny booking agent noticed the unlikely existence of two bands sharing such incongruous influences, and packaged them together on an American tour. The double bill, which stopped recently at Metro, showed plenty of promise, but despite a handful of entertaining moments, neither band fulfilled it.
Unrest has been releasing albums since 1988. Their first three records are wildly scattered affairs that feel more like compilations than the work of a single band. Singer-guitarist Mark Robinson and drummer Phil Krauth (bassist Bridget Cross joined the group two years ago) jumped from Kiss covers to disco posturing to fragmented instrumentals to lush Morrissey-style ballads to frantic thrashing punk. A lot of the fun of those early records came from seeing what juxtapositions Robinson would come up with next. Then came their fourth album, 1991’s Imperial f.f.r.r. (the initials stand for “full frequency response recording,” a legend that appeared on early stereo demonstration records and has recently reappeared on ambient-house-music discs). On it Unrest strung together with surprising coherence a disparate array of smooth pop songs, jittery high-velocity rockers, churning noise experiments, glacially paced ballads, and funky instrumentals. It hung together in large part because each song was built on a pulsing rhythmic foundation reminiscent of those old Krautrock bands; even when the drums and bass were absent, the pulse was always there.
Unrest played in Chicago three times in 1992, and at each show they pushed their music’s rhythmic underpinning into the foreground. The trio played hypnotic grooves in the tradition of the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” and Can’s “Mother Sky.” Like those songs, “Imperial” and “Hydroplane” were used as platforms for improvisations that relied more on sustained tension than instrumental prowess. The guitar and bass would worry away at the same two chords for several minutes, exploring every possible combination of them.
Perfect Teeth, the group’s new album on Warner Bros. subsidiary 4AD, is an uneven shadow-boxing match with the expectations that burden a band debuting on a major label. It’s heavily weighted toward conventional pop songs, which have always been part of the Unrest oeuvre but never the whole story. Robinson counts down the chorus of “Six Layer Cake” (“Six five four three two one layer cake”) with a boyish enthusiasm, and his brisk rhythm guitar on “So Sick” buoys a hook as sweet and fluffy as cotton candy. “West Coast Love Affair,” a showcase for Krauth’s mellow croon, and “Angel I’ll Walk You Home,” a prayerful ballad featuring lush harmonies sung by Cross and Robinson, have a breathy lilt reminiscent of Dionne Warwick. The best pop songs work fine, but the band’s efforts to be adventurous break the seamless rhythmic flow that made Imperial f.f.r.r. so satisfying. Several long, meandering tracks that strive to be challenging are merely annoying. But Robinson has always had good instincts about which songs work well onstage, so there was reason to expect a strong performance at Metro.
Like Unrest, Stereolab powers its songs with repetitive grooves. Tim Gane and French singer-keyboardist Laetitia Sadier are Stereolab’s permanent members. Gane, who plays keyboards on record but sticks to guitar live, borrows heavily from the Velvet Underground’s brittle rhythm guitar style, paying homage by incorporating actual VU riffs into his songs. Stereolab’s records prominently feature the throbbing, percolating bleeps of an old Moog synthesizer, and another anachronistic keyboard, the Farfisa organ, is also integral to the band’s sound. It connects them both to the 60s garage rock of ? and the Mysterians and to Philip Glass’s early minimalist compositions. But Sadier’s voice, on intricate and delightfully catchy melodies, turns Stereolab’s odd Moog textures and repetitive rhythms into pop music.
The band’s earliest records, Switched On and Peng!, offer a stripped-down version of the sound that’s fleshed out on Stereolab’s Elektra debut, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements. Gane and Sadier have come up with ten songs that are simultaneously louder and more languid than anything they’ve previously recorded. A couple pieces push into frankly experimental territory, layering distorted voices, vinyl surface noise, and fuzzy keyboard tones. But the record’s most audacious song is also its most accessible. “Jenny Ondioline” has three movements that begin and end in bursts of clamorous guitar racket; each has a lockstep rhythm over which the band stretches a colorful array of keyboard drones and vocal melodies that evolve and interact with each other. It’s as hypnotic and driving as Philip Glass at his best, yet the sublime vocal melodies are as catchy as an Archies song.
Opening for Unrest at Metro, Stereolab focused on a disappointingly narrow band of their frequency range. Sadier’s synthesizer was barely audible, drowned out by Katharine Gifford’s Farfisa organ. And the band got off to a slow start, which was especially unfortunate because “Jenny Ondioline” was the night’s second song. Exhilarating on record, it sounded perfunctory in performance. When he finally finished adjusting his watchband, about two-thirds of the way through the song, Gane introduced some much-needed tension by playing jagged accents against the groove, but it was too late in coming. The textural variety that made Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements so appealing was missing throughout the show. If they had improvised in concert like their German inspirations they might have added an element of danger and unpredictability. Instead they stuck closely to worked-out arrangements. In one respect this made sense; unpredictable jamming would have made the songs’ often complicated vocal parts difficult to perform, and here Sadier and guitarist-harmony singer Mary Hansen rendered them flawlessly.
Within their self-imposed limits the band put on a decent show. Bassist Duncan Brown and drummer Andy Ramsay were metronomically precise, yet sensitive enough to know when to hold back and when to drive the song by doubling the time. Gane’s stage presence was unassuming, but his vigorous playing lent some bite to the frothy voice-heavy mix. Sadier and Hansen rarely addressed the audience and stood stock still as they sang and played. The band left the stage after a lengthy workout on “Stomach Worm,” the most aggressive track on Peng!, to a mixed audience response: wild cheering mixed with polite applause. It seemed appropriate for a performance that was simultaneously enjoyable and disappointing.
Unrest’s performance, on the other hand, could be summed up in one word: short. They only played 40 minutes, rushing through each song like they’d rather be playing the next one. This high-energy approach worked on the faster numbers (drawn mostly from Perfect Teeth and Imperial f.f.r.r.) but threatened to pull apart the more relaxed “West Coast Love Affair.” The set’s length may have been due to an equipment shortage, though. Robinson broke one guitar string halfway through the set and never replaced it. Perhaps he lacked replacement strings or a second guitar. At any rate, the show ended shortly after he broke another string.
Diminutive bassist Bridget Cross introduced some welcome levity into the performance. In the past she has kept a pretty low profile but tonight she repeatedly played the clown. Dwarfed by her bass guitar, she struck exaggerated rock-star poses, and during one instrumental even turned a somersault while continuing to play, taking the macho show-off tradition and quite literally turning it on its head. And it was on Cross’s “Vibe Out” (the B-side of a recent single on Teen Beat) that Unrest finally returned to the hypnotic groove we heard when they played here last year. She and Robinson stretched the song out twice as long as anything else they played that night, building it up to a spacy crescendo. As they jammed, it became clear that they were playing off each other and that neither one knew where the song would go next. Then Robinson neatly resolved the improvisation with a brief coda. It was the show’s most exciting moment, and a reminder of how great Unrest can be when they decide to take a chance.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joy Dilworth, Steve Double.