Quarantining The Past: Unrest’s ‘Perfect Teeth’

    Considering the jagged-fanged sound of Unrest’s early records, it’s still fascinating to wonder how they got to their final record, 1993’s Perfect Teeth. They were just one year removed from Imperial f.f.r.r.which some thing is the best thing from 1992 not released by the Beastie Boys — and these last two albums mark a shift from the barbed rock attack of their earlier work into sounds that are somehow both more pristine and more thrilling.

    Perfect Teeth has the same scattershot pop approach as its predecessor, though the overall cohesion of the album is what makes it so remarkable. Mark Robinson and his band — bassist Bridget Cross and drummer Phil Krauth — made a sound that felt far too big for a trio, even though its elements were lean. Opener “Angel, I’ll Walk You Home” is an interesting mood piece, built on slow, jangling guitar and keening vocal melodies. It’s a far cry from the breakneck speed of the next tune, the power-pop gem “Cath Carroll,” and yet they sound inextricably linked. They run about the same length, and yet “Cath Carroll” moves five times as fast. Still, though the guitars beef up a bit and Krauth’s drumming nearly breaks the sound barrier, it’s Robinson’s sweet vocal melody that drives the day. It’s got the same sweet foundation as “Angel, I’ll Walk You Home,” it just masks it in rock fury.

    There are these kinds of sleights of hand all over the record. “So Sick” drives forward on clean guitars, slashing the more muscled sound of “Cath Carroll” to the bone, and yet the song feels just as propulsive. It’s a half-step or two shorter, but it’s not really a respite so much as a shifting in gears. Things pick up the pace again on “Light Command,” but here we shift from Robinson’s indie-rock croon to Bridget Cross’s many talents. The song is her show, from the brilliant high-and-low of her bass line and her ethereal vocals sweeping into an otherwise blistering track.

    In their last two albums, Unrest had a knack for meshing the sublime with the volatile. Nowhere in their catalog do they nail this dichotomy with more precision than Perfect Teeth‘s centerpiece, “Soon It Is Going to Rain.” It’s a slow burner, letting Robinson stretched out his honeyed voice instead of cramming it in-between ring chords, but the way the song deals with pace is flat-out brilliant. The chords thicken and the drums pick up while Robinson quiets his voice to a hum in the background. You think there’s no turning back, here, but then they drop right back into the deliberate pace of the towering chorus. But the guitars are just a little thicker this time around, stretching out into the space around them before the band rips into it again, Cross and Krauth in lock-step with one another and as Robinson assures us, “I have found my way back home,” you believe him because, no matter how much the album wanders through textures and sonic experiments, this pop-tinged rock power is the center of the far-out Unrest universe. Later in the record, “Brother X.O.X.O.” pulls off a similar feat, though it does so with much moodier tones and on a much slower building, smoldering tension. Closer “Stylized Ampersand” focuses on the negative space those songs build out of and gives us a mirror image of all the bright beauty of the album, closing with Robinson and Cross groaning through each note with an affecting strength.

    Unrest was a band impossible to pin down, so it’s no wonder they didn’t get the recognition they deserved. But make no mistake, they were one of the most unpredictable, exciting, and downright kick-ass bands of the ’90s, and really in the past few decades. They could do so many things so well, and they spent their career honing them into something close to a cohesive whole without losing their eccentricity and experimental side. Perfect Teeth is as good as rock music gets, forcing you forward at every turn, often quicker than your ready to move, and never quite tells you where it’s going. But the effect of this scatterbrained record is still growing today. Teenbeat Records, run by Robinson, put out a 7-inch box-set edition of Perfect Teeth for Record Store Day, and it sold out. So now Teenbeat has pressed the box set again, and it is a must have. The record is split up physically now to go along with the disparate-yet-loosely-linked sonics of the album. It’s a fitting way to listen to a record that draws you in, that asks you to be a part of the sound.

    So get your copy here, and you’ll hear one of the great unsung bands in rock music at the very top of its game.