At Unrest’s inception, leader Mark Robinson was an Arlington teenager wedged between (punk) rock and an art place, struggling madly to satisfy his predilections for both the splenetic bashing of local harDCore and the vaporous waft of gray-overcoated Brit gloom-rock. Those elements would endure, in varying degrees, throughout the band’s various lineups and moodswings, but what began as stylistic convolution gradually turned into intricacy, making Unrest — at its peak — one of the underground’s most fruitfully unpredictable bands.
While Tink of S.E. is the commonly agreed-upon moniker bestowed upon the band’s first widely available album, the diffuse art project was actually titled differently on each of the individually hand-drawn covers that swathed it upon release. The motley cluster of avant-rock tone bursts inside are reminiscent in theory of jazzbo prog-rockers Henry Cow (an album of whose gave Unrest its name), but in actuality, things like “Live on a Hot August Night” and “The Tundra” are little more than lazy clutter in dada drag. (The potent cover of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” and a loopy dub incursion into “Wild Thing” are another matter, however.) Augmented by a handful of early singles (including an endearingly contorted version of “So You Want to Be a Rock’n’Roll Star” from the three-song Unrest) and tracks from cassettes (all on Robinson’s TeenBeat label), the entire album — which is referred to in the liner notes as State Champs — is contained on Fuck Pussy Galore (& All Her Friends).
Malcolm X Park isn’t much more focused, but the latent Anglophilia of the first outing is manifested in snappier fashion, from The Teardrop Explodes-styled space-pop of “Lucifer Rising” to the title track, which retools the Fall’s astringent raving for the moshpit set. A cover of Kiss’ “Strutter” denotes both an overly ironic worldview and a discouraging disposition to vapid muscle-flexing, but the rest of the album provides enough of a gray-matter workout to compensate. (Twister is a 20-track collection of outtakes from the ’80s.)
Robinson looked a bit closer to home when it came time to seek conceptual inspiration for Kustom Karnal Blackxploitation, an album mottled with ghetto-blasts of bizarro-world Afrocentric ranting (like “Kill Whitey” and “Black Power Dynamo”) that border on minstrel caricature. The thing is, Robinson doesn’t seem to carry a lot of malice — even when he’s proclaiming himself omnipotent ruler of the universe. Drummer Phil Krauth and bassist David Park set up a fairly wide array of agreeably brittle rhythms for Robinson to splatter with guitar outbursts, ranging from purist hardcore like “Click Click (Fuck Like a Man)” to the fey bubble-pop of “She Makes Me Shake Like a Soul Machine.” Talk about cognitive dissonance! A Factory Record allows Robinson to indulge his fetish for the Manchester label’s seminal ’70s work by covering songs by four of its artists: Crawling Chaos, Crispy Ambulance, ESG and Miaow, whose singer, Cath Carroll, would prove to be a lasting icon in the Unrest canon.
That EP pointed the way to the sea change that materialized on the wonderful Imperial f.f.r.r. (An Imperial Full Frequency Range Recording), a giddy blend of ethereal cotton-candy pop, go-go-influenced trance-grooves, new wavey white-funk and bracing guitar math; it’s as if years of New Musical Express coverage had been boiled down and used to fertilize the band’s rich creative loam. The album’s crucial mechanism is Robinson’s non-stop kinetic strumming, which provides the urgent underpinning for sexy tunes like “Cherry Cream On,” a song that would appear, with slight variations, under several different titles on scattered singles). As Robinson plays the role of funk-driven shaman, new bassist Bridget Cross — fresh from a nascent version of Velocity Girl — judiciously peppers the mix with sweet bills and coos (as on the death-obsessed “June”) that provide plenty of tension, given their disturbing subtext. The Isabel Bishop mini-album augments Imperial’s sweetly acoustic ode to the painter (whose granddaughter was Robinson’s longtime girlfriend) with six archival tracks, including the carnal classic “Yes She Is My Skinhead Girl.” (That song is one of the four added to Imperial‘s expanded British edition, which has completely different artwork.)
The title track of Bavarian Mods, which ponders a world overrun by lederhosen-wearing rude boys, is one of the more bizarre entreaties to come down the pike in a Vespa’s age; Robinson ups the ante by playing it off a cover of Argent’s “God Gave Rock and Roll to You.” On the heels of that, Cath Carroll seems positively normal (if slightly stalker-ish) in its lionizing of the singer/journalist, whom Robinson subsequently signed to record for TeenBeat. The commercial version of the EP contains but one song (“Where Are All Those Puerto Rican Boys?”) that doesn’t appear on Perfect Teeth, but a widely distributed promo edition adds a 33-minute go-go/kraut-rock workout on “Hydro.”
Beyond the sparkling pop perfection of “Cath Carroll” (“is going to take me for a ride!”), Perfect Teeth suffers from an energy shortage severe enough to make liquid No-Doz an ideal mouthwash. The album has its charming moments (like the gooey “Make Out Club”), but the pervasive sense of gentility keeps any of the songs from getting under the skin. Perfect for tea parties, but that’s about it.
The trio then split, tying up some loose ends with B.P.M., a compendium of remixes and previously unreleased cuts that reflects most of the band’s many sides to good effect. Chugging through two versions of Family Fodder’s giddy “Winona Ryder” and another version of “Hydrofoil,” Unrest is at its most breezily unaffected. A nice way to bow out.
Robinson and Cross went on to form Air Miami with drummer Gabriel Stout; the new trio doesn’t stray far from the path blazed by Unrest. The bubblegum aftertaste left by segments of Me. Me. Me. is a bit too strong when Robinson indulges his propensity for creating inconsequential chantalongs like “World Cup Fever,” but he offsets that with reams of bracing, Fire Engines-styled guitar and a guileless new wave sensibility (see “Dolphin Expressway”) that should sway all but the most diehard Anglophobe. Cross takes more vocal turns (most notably the creamy, Casio-flecked “Afternoon Train”), which is assuredly a good thing; the two also engage in some post-mod Sonny & Cher duets, which isn’t. Fuck You, Tiger (which unfortunately has no title track) joins two fairly radical remixes of album tracks with a pair of lovely new songs, including the shimmering Jimmy Webb analogue “Warm Miami May.” Robinson subsequently formed Olympic Death Squad, a one-man band he unveiled on 1996’s Blue album.
As Mark E, Robinson channels the spirit of an airport lounge performer possessed with never-to-be-fulfilled Vegas ambitions. Sammy Supreme My Man is an oddly touching tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr., replete with Vegas-tinged raps and love-you-man banter that’s strictly coolsville.
On his first solo album, Krauth also takes a shot at late ’60s adult pop, betraying an unexpected affinity for the baroque stylings of AM confectioners like the Association and Fifth Dimension — either of whom would have had a ball swinging through something like the opening “Rainy Days.” While Krauth’s voice lacks range (to say the least), his enthusiasm is positively infectious, particularly on upbeat tracks like “You’ve Changed” and the mildly psychedelic “Taste of Beauty.”