Graded on a Curve: Unwound, Live Leaves

Tumwater, WA’s Unwound is one of the defining bands in the great big ‘90s indie-rock trip. One of the many compliments that can be paid to the trio is that their final album Leaves Turn Inside You was also their best. More than a decade has passed since that record appeared, and the group has just released an intriguing 2LP Live Leaves, a set that details the 2001 tour that directly preceded their breakup. While definitely one for the fans, it still contains qualities that help it to stand apart from the large mass of often underwhelming standard-issue live records.

2012 has already seen a couple highly regarded indie bands release historically focused live albums, specifically Sonic Youth’s Smart Bar – Chicago 1985 and Dinosaur Jr.’s Chocomel Daze, both documents from that wide open period of the ‘80s when indie rock was indeed happening, but hardly anybody knew exactly what to call it yet. In addition, those two records capture, to differing levels of success, the fairly fitful sound of both bands in single shows (the Dino set was taped at a performance in Doornroosje, Nijmegen, Netherlands in 1987) and before they’d reached their highest levels of confidence, grandeur, and notoriety.

Unwound’s Live Leaves comes from a much later period, roughly a decade after the term indie rock had become well established and the form well entrenched; in fact, for some it had come close to running its course. The album also differs from the above by capturing the live music of a band that was pretty strident in their indie sensibility, having gathered a sizable and devoted following through both the quality of their music and the decision to remain legitimately independent in association with the Kill Rock Stars label. Lastly, it finds them at the end of their creative run via songs picked from eight shows on their final tour in the late summer/early fall of 2001.

The late summer/early fall of 2001 was not a very good time to be a rock band out on the road. That was when the attacks on World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred, and the mood for months afterward wasn’t exactly conducive to heading out to the club to catch a set. All but two of the tracks from Live Leaves were recorded post-9/11, the group soldiering on through dates in the Southeast US and Texas before ending up in California in October. According to guitarist/vocalist Justin Trosper’s promo notes for this release, that’s where they “self-destructed.”

In those notes Trosper mentions that they nearly broke up after 9/11 happened, and if they’d done so, it’s doubtful anybody would’ve called them quitters. In addition to the national mood of the time, Unwound had been active for a decade, releasing six full-lengths, a self-titled mini-LP, and numerous singles and compilation tracks, so it wasn’t like the band didn’t have a steady track record of achievement upon which to call it a day.

But in sticking it out for a little over another month they managed to knock out some very solid live readings of their material in an interesting five-person lineup (featuring original drummer Brandt Sandeno on keyboards and Melvins associate David Scott Stone as second guitarist) that over a decade after their demise, presents a favorable exclamation point on their legacy as a loud and inventive lynchpin in the ‘90s determinedly indie state of affairs.

Unwound arrived on the scene in impressive fashion, kicking up a fair amount of dust from inside a pretty prolific musical landscape via a handful of singles, the band solidifying their presence with the very strong debut LP Fake Train in ’93. But even after the solid strides of the following year’s New Plastic Ideas there was no real indication that Unwound would persevere to become one of the flagship bands on Kill Rock Stars.

Along with Trosper, drummer Sara Lund and bassist Vern Rumsey continually broadened a sound that in its early stages was essentially a blend of Sonic Youth, Fugazi, and the general heft of the late-‘80s noise-rock scene. No, it wasn’t startlingly original, but before long it became pretty easy to identify a previously unheard Unwound song as belonging to the band.

A big part of the reason came down to Trosper’s vocals; he possessed a great agitated bark that was a little remindful of prime Alec MacKaye (think Ignition) and furthermore, in his more subdued moments he could sound sleepy and ominous at the same time. But Lund’s drums and Rumsey’s bass also managed to combine with Trosper’s voice and guitar to present an indie rock power-trio of great potency.

And the studio was their friend. With the typically solid production assistance of Steve Fisk, the three album midsection of their discography, ‘95’s The Future of What, ‘96’s Repetition and ‘98’s Challenge for a Civilized Society, found them honing their collective talents into a true beast of a sound. And choosing to remain indie while heaps of their contemporaries were brokering death-deals with majors simply meant their sonic juggernaut unwound (so to speak) without the distractions of unnecessary spotlight and quibbles over sales figures.

Here was a band highly unlikely to ever break into the playlists of commercial radio or land in the upper regions of the album charts, and in remaining independent they were able to continue just trucking along. And then without much ado, Unwound became one of the most respected veteran indie units around.

They took three years to complete the final studio album that’s generally considered to be their masterpiece. A double-LP recorded in their self-built MagRecOne studio (with some assistance from Fisk and producer Phil Ek), Leaves Turn Inside You was at times a startling departure, more melodic and experimental simultaneously and quieter in its attention to dynamics while never faltering by losing the thread found in the more raucous records that made their reputation. Additionally, they added interesting layers of extra instrumentation via Mellotron, organ, piano, Fender Rhodes, harpsichord and synthesizer, elements that greatly underscored Unwound’s unwittingly climactic ambitions.

As can be easily inferred by the titles alone, Leaves Turn Inside You provides much of the content for Live Leaves. But expanding to a five-piece could only do so much to recreate the atmosphere of that album when taking it out on the road, so what’s on offer here is distinguished far more by its differences than it is by its obvious connections to the group’s culminating studio product.

Reading via Trosper that the original plan was to release this music in 2002 does nothing to reduce the lack of deliberateness that makes the 12 songs here so appealing. Live Leaves truly feels captured by happenstance, very much like a bootleg, a situation that’s greatly assisted by the interference of bartender’s breaking glass bottles, the voices of audience members, and the announcement over the PA to please drink up because you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here. In fact, these tapes were made by Mike “The Kid” Zeigler, noted bootlegger of over 10,000 recordings.

This should in no way be taken as a criticism of Live Leaves’ sonic offerings. Actually, along with providing some valuable insights into the processes of transferring a largely studio-based invention onto a succession of notable club stages (among them Emo’s in Austin, TX, 40 Watt Club in Athens, GA and Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, NC), the band is quite on top of their game. If bootleg-like in nature, Zeigler did an excellent job from within that context, with the lengthy “Terminus” an early standout.

But Live Leaves isn’t wholly focused upon the contents of Leaves Turn Inside You. Killer earlier songs like “Corpse Pose,” “Arboretum,” “No Tech,” and even “Valentine Card” from Fake Train are here, and if the contents were selected from a bunch of different shows in the attempt to compile the best release possible, it still feels like an actual set, though one that ends curiously and a little abruptly with the keyboard driven moodiness of “Radio Gra.”

Live Leaves is a classy endeavor all around, but it’s far from the place to begin with Unwound. Trosper basically admits as much by stating that the record “isn’t trying to rewrite history.” But given context of that history, this release becomes pretty representative of why the band mattered to so many. So it’s basically a must hear for their fans, and it falls into some fine historical company with Wire’s Document and Eyewitness, Mission of Burma’s The Horrible Truth About Burma and even a suave slice of studio-conceived ephemera like The Rolling Stones’ side-squirt Jamming with Edward!

No, it’s not as great as those three records, but it does possess some of the same moxie, providing a nice contrast to the predetermined feel of far too many live LPs. Live Leaves’ audio- vérité approach feels like it should be far more common, but if it was, it would surely lose much of what makes it so worthwhile.


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