Graded on a Curve: Tunabunny,
Genius Fatigue

Tunabunny has released three records in a relatively brief span of time and while knowledge of their work is increasing they’ve still received nowhere near the attention they deserve. The newest one from the band is titled Genius Fatigue and it finds them successfully elevating their often clamorous and at times quite melodious femme-voiced post-punk to a higher plateau. In so doing they pull off a difficult trick; in taking a big step onto a larger stage they easily avoid creating any disconnect with their excellent past.

While certain rock genres either fall out of favor or simply hold a limited lifespan and influence, folks have been nicking from the sturdy precedent of post-punk for a few decades now, and it doesn’t look like the situation is going to curtail any time soon. Like the blues, ‘60s garage, and guitar-based pop-rock, post-punk possesses an enduring allure, particularly for youthful bands.

This is in part due to post-punk’s general retention of one big lesson taught by its unhyphenated predecessor, that being an emphasis on energy and imagination over chops. And this directly relates to how a well-absorbed post-punk influence can still sound very up-to-date.

This is the case with Athens, GA’s Tunabunny. In a manner similar to Brooklyn’s Talk Normal, they avoid the rather blatant style-cribs that made some of the post-punk focused activity from last decade register as decidedly underwhelming. Instead of connecting like mere copyists, Tunabunny find success by not recalling the sound of any specific band. Where they differ from Talk Normal however, is through an initial impact that, at least to this listener, was distinctly ‘90s in orientation.

In a sense, this sets up another potential problem that Tunabunny sidestep with relative ease, the issue being the far from new phenomenon of certain contemporary bands reinvestigating the sounds of twenty odd years ago. Inevitably, the results of this tendency have registered with differing levels of success. At its most uninspired, it feels like simple stylistic plunder and holds the aura of a rather predictable nostalgia-based trend.

That’s not at all what Tunabunny are up to in Genius Fatigue, their third record in roughly three years and the first with new drummer Jesse Stinnard. Initially comprised of one guy, bassist Scott Creney, and three gals, guitarist/vocalists Mary Jane Hassell and Brigette Herron and drummer Chloe Tewksbury, the group issued a fine self-titled debut in 2010 and an equally successful, more confident follow-up Minima Moralia the following year.

At first, those records seemed to serve up a shrewd amalgamation of the sort of ‘90’s indie sounds found on labels like Kill Rock Stars, Slumberland, and Wiiija. This circumstance was accentuated by the band’s gender integration and their emphasis on spirited mayhem over technical ability, and the vigorous combination of melodiousness and racket they spread across those first two efforts persisted in being remindful of the sort of stuff that was hitting its stride at the beginning of Bill Clinton’s first term.

But again, Tunabunny conveniently sidestepped the bugaboo of stylistically aping one specific band. Occasionally the music presented flashes of Bratmobile morphing into an atmosphere reminiscent of Sonic Youth. Along the way there were also flare-ups of anger suggestive of Bikini Kill, though these eruptions chose the personal and/or ambiguous over direct expressions of topicality or protest.

On the whole, the band avoided an aura of calculation in favor of the anarchic, and the more time that was spent with Tunabunny and Minima Moralia the more the group’s deeper connection to the enduring spirit of post-punk, and for that matter the subsequent ‘80s progressions of indie pop, became apparent.

This might not seem on paper like any great revelation, since post-punk and indie pop were two of the main points of influence for the great big ‘90s indie gush described above. But the sustained expressions of non-virtuosity found on Tunabunny’s debut seemed to indicate a bunch of itchy, impatient ears that had listened to just enough of The Slits, Delta 5, and even the early stuff from hometown legends Pylon to jump into a modest studio setting and make some noise of their own. And if Minima Moralia offered an increase in confidence (as well as audience), it didn’t break with their smartly amateurish vibe. In fact, the occasional sound of bowed strings ushered in a loose affinity with the work of The Raincoats.

All this in no way undermines Tunabunny’s ties to the ‘90s indie shebang, but instead transforms it into a very sweet situation, one that’s securely situated as a logical progression for a genre of music that’s nowhere close to running out of inspiration or ingenuity. As such, Tunabunny are situated to be, if not the leaders of the pack then certainly close to the forefront. With Genius Fatigue Tewksbury has moved on; Stinnard is in, and the change coincides with a great leap in confidence for the band.

Additionally there is a palpable sense of refinement, most notably in the strength of the songwriting but also detectable in the way the record leaps from the speakers as a statement of, if not maturity, than at least acknowledgement of their evolution as a working group. This is symbolic of their true ties to their influences; none of the great post-punk or ‘90s-indie bands stayed in one place for very long. But many of those act’s breaks with the past were so sharp that they ultimately became far less interesting. That’s not the case with Genius Fatigue, a record that should please longtime fans and encourage new listeners in equal measure.

Opener “Duchess for Nothing” begins in the expected mode but before long takes an unexpected detour into some hammer-down rock throttle, bringing to mind the work of such major (and now sorta neglected) ‘90’s outfits as L7 and 7-Year Bitch. Stinnard immediately proves his worthiness as a new member, pounding his kit with authority, but it’s the roar of the guitars and the intensity of the voices that take charge and make it obvious in just a smidge over two minutes that Tunabunny have undergone some significant changes.

“Serpents & Light” moves into indie pop mode, though the achy brittleness of the song flirts with the shambolic in a manner that easily transcends the replication of mere sweetness and fuzz. And not to belabor a point, but as “Serpents & Light” unwinds, it never falls under the spell of one band’s sound. Or for that matter one scene; there are hints of The Raincoats, but also brief flashes that inspired thoughts of Times New Viking.

It’s been written that Genius Fatigue was recorded live, and with loose, gradually building throbbers like “You Do What You Want” I can understand why. It’s a song that slightly recalls The Breeders (in terms of direct influence Tunabunny could become true masters of the nuanced, possibly accidental association), and would surely sound great coming from a festival side-stage (for side-stages are reliably where the action is.)

“Slackjawed” is a small gem of tough indie pop, its biggest assets being a very strong songwriting base and great vocal interaction. The best thing they don’t do is overuse the guitars, sabotaging the melody as was the wont of many forgotten ‘90s outfits. “Airplanes in Echelon” gets a little shoegazey, but the vocals hit like an entry in K Records’ International Pop Underground series.

Side two opens with “Form a Line,” a solid mid-tempo rocker with a nice keyboard/synth curveball thrown in. “Wrong Kind of Attention” follows up with a knuckler, connecting like a merger between Heavens to Betsy and Pavement. And what’s great is that is goes on for a while, nearing the six minute mark.

But maybe the biggest twist on the side is the opening of “Pachyderm, Fallen,” which momentarily had me thinking it was a cover of…no, I shan’t spoil it. Suffice to say it recall’s Tunabunny’s “Play Dead,” a song which featured an exquisitely delivered New Order rip (I can’t bring myself to fully give that one away either.)

“Hollywood Unincorporated” returns to solid ‘90’s indie mode, mildly rubbing up against the sound of Helium, and closer “Government of Throats” closes things out with a bang, coming off a little like Sleater-Kinney exploring the vibe of Sonic Youth in their more rock-centered moments.

All three Tunabunny records are keepers but Genius Fatigue is something special, a third album from a post-punk inclined unit that clearly communicates the group’s need for development but also remains quite tethered to the boisterous, no-nonsense spirit of their early work. Again, a lot of post-punk, particularly from the original wave, grew up too fast, with the bands sadly considering their early stuff mere child’s play.

Tunabunny is getting more adept with each passing record, but they’ve refreshingly resisted the urge to act like adults. And that might just be the best weapon in their arsenal.


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