Even though I couldn’t put this record in with the others for my end of the year best-of list, I can’t resist the urge to post about it. When Unwound broke up ten years ago it was sudden and came with absolutely no warning. The casual nature of their post on the Kill Rock Stars site saying they were cancelling their European and Japanese tours in support of their amazing final record ‘Leaves Turn Inside You’ because they were breaking up hit me like a ton of bricks. I was crushed. I’d just started digging into their back catalog. They’d played at the Granada in Lawrence only a few months before the announcement and I hadn’t gone as it had fallen during a period of time just before I’d gotten ‘Leaves Turn Inside You.’ In the announcement, however, they had promised a live compilation culled from the tour where they’d expanded to a five-piece and there was talk of a live recording archive website. As time continued to pass it seemed as though this was not to be. I continued to search out the records in their diverse back catalog. They were proving to be one of my favourite bands of the indie rock ilk—in a lot of ways it seems like that classic idea of indie rock died with them. A lot of bands on independent labels these days are mining material from very different sources. The punk roots and ethics are less of a concern these days.
Unwound were always an incredibly unique band. I recall hearing them dismissed as everything from Fugazi soundalikes to second-rate Sonic Youth imitators. I always found it a bit odd back then, but listening to them now any comparison seems baffling. I’d always heard that they were a force to be reckoned with live—they were certainly well-traveled. This live set is something else though. As if I weren’t already kicking myself for never having seen them live hearing this live compilation has sent me from ‘kicking myself’ to ‘completely gutted.’ These recordings are all technically bootleg quality, but honestly they seem to suit the songs better than the coarse sterility a lot of soundboard sourced recordings tend to have. I enjoy the slew of talkers during ‘Below the Salt,’ the sound of the odd clinking beer bottle (I have some live recordings from the Granada that feature this sound heavily) and, perhaps best of all, the stage announcement at the end of the jaw-dropping ‘Arboretum’/’Below the Salt’ onslaught. ‘You have 15 minutes to finish your beers.’ Very nice touch.
While the emphasis is on the ‘Leaves Turn Inside You’ material (it is called ‘Live Leaves’ after all) the old stuff isn’t completely forsaken. Nearly every other Unwound album is represented here—‘Valentine Card’ was always a personal favourite of mine from ‘Fake Train’ and is represented here, for instance. Their older tracks sound great in their five-piece format. It’s clear that the liner notes are being a bit self-deprecating—it’s hard to imagine a band that is clearly at the top of their game having a mediocre night. I guess it’s just a symptom of coming of age in the 90s—there was something that existed called ‘modesty.’ Most remarkably this set doesn’t reek of nostalgia—its delay wound up being a virtue that has helped solidify Unwound’s place in an independent music world that has become increasingly disjointed. They were one of the bands in the trenches paving the way for countless artists working today. What I’m most relieved about is the fact that this has put them back at the forefront of my mind and listening where they’ve always belonged. Sometime around when all of my cassette tapes were stolen out of my van in 2005 and I switched to an iPod shortly thereafter there were tons of bands that I used to listen to constantly that became mere passing thoughts. Unwound was one of those bands and whenever I would be reminded of them I would realize that if any band didn’t belong in those forgotten recesses of my shifting awareness it was them. As much as I enjoy the type of great new music that I’m constantly being bombarded with these days, I do miss these days when anything seemed possible. Unwound were always one of those bands that made me think this—they made amazing music that was bursting with ideas, existed seemingly independent of any other band or musician past or present and seemed to work from an endless well of amazing ideas and concepts that were entirely their own. Plus they were an honestly hard-working, brilliant and modest band—there are fewer and fewer of them these days.