It was announced yesterday (via Pitchfork) that Unrest’s terrific 1993 album, Perfect Teeth, would finally be coming back into print this spring after a stupid-long absence. And oh man, is it pretty. Teenbeat Records, the label founded by Unrest frontman Mark E. Robinson when he was still a Virginia high-schooler, will be reissuing the record as it was originally put-out—as a box set of colored 7″ records (a full 6 of them this time, including 6 non-album tracks, and a whole lot of fancy packaging extras). Wow. If physically released music is slowly eroding in the face of increased digital sales and nebulous Spotified clouds, you might as well break out the good stuff for the dead-enders. Vinyl fetishists might need to establish a safe word before opening this thing.
So, while we’re excited, let’s take a second to establish why. Unrest are one of those bands, like The Clean or The Television Personalities or Orange Juice, say, who always seem just shy of full-fledged enshrinement in the indie canon despite folks like me continually making a case for why it’s a no-brainer. Unrest had hits.
Let’s go to the YouTube:
“Make Out Club”
A little reverse chronology to first deal with the record in question. “Make Out Club” is Perfect Teeth‘s finest moment, and maybe the best thing Robinson ever recorded. The simple, relatable romanticism of it, the furious guitar work. There’s a bit of residual twee, maybe, but it’s loose and hormonal enough to actually feel like the inside of a teenager’s head at the moment of first sexual contact. Indie-pop going H.A.M.!
Another single from the record, even faster than the last. The girl it’s named for is an even more obscure post-punk figure from the late 70s, who is also Perfect Teeth‘s cover star. Its video looks so much like the 90s, it might have actually been a sketch on The Ben Stiller Show.
Hole – “Yes She is My Skinhead Girl” (live in Berlin, 1995)
Of course, Robinson had been making songs for a decade before those big, 4AD-distributed moments, a practical folk hero for starting his label as a lending library for high-school chums, building it into something special. His first minor blip of popularity came from 1991 single, “Yes, She is My Skinhead Girl”. Above, you’ll see a slowly unraveling version by 90s zeitgeist mascot Courtney Love, who, it should be said, was as on point with cover choices in her day as Yo La Tengo.
“Cherry Cream On”
Despite a prolific late 80s/early 90s output, the band only fully came together with the addition of bassist Bridget Cross, who would feature prominently on 1992’s Imperial f.f.r.r., their first real full-length masterpiece (reissued itself a few years back to some acclaim). You can see her plucking away in the grainy video above, filmed in some L.E.S. hellhole. The song is a single-serving rebuke to indie-rock’s supposed sexlessness, and actually pretty smutty. It ryhmes “what’s your number?” with “I want to get inside her”!
“Isabel”/”Teenage Suicide” (in-store performance, 1993)
But it wasn’t all uptempo slashing. Imperial is actually quite heavy on majestic slow burn. Here, at a 1993 in-store, they handle the sweet, sailing “Isabel.” Robinson looks a little Neil Schweiber-y, but his unamplified voice is amazing. The bigger point of geek-out, for me anyway, is the following performance of the 1990 song “Teenage Suicide.” That one is a knowing nod to the late-80s hipster classic Heathers, and its fictional, hilarious in-film anthem of the same name by socially-conscious fake rockers, Big Fun. That song’s hook “teenage suicide—don’t do it!” is lifted, followed by a brightly petulant “Yes I Can!” Don’t tell us what to do!!! (Winona Ryder obsessed as any good 90s cool kid, Robinson actually reworked Family Fodder’s swell 1980 post-punk novelty “Debbie Harry” as “Winona Ryder”. We patiently await the modern band who wants to further update hipster crush iconography by recording, I dunno, “Carey Mulligan”?)
Air Miami – “I Hate Milk”
Robinson went on to record lots of music post-Unrest, both solo and with bands like Flin-Flon and Grenadine. The best non-Unrest Robinson album is probably Air Miami’s Me Me Me from 1995, also featuring Cross on bass. The record had a little more alt-radio gloss to it, but as you can hear above, isn’t wildly divergent from his prior work. “Please, please, someone kill me soon.” (For Air Miami’s most gleefully negative track, “Neely”, you’ll have to go to Spotify.) It should get reissued next.
Unrest reformed recently, like many other unsung 90s heroes you can name, sounding great at their Bell House stop in Brooklyn in 2010 (a show I had to miss, sniff). No word as of yet on whether they’ll be doing more shows to coincide with the reissue, but if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to start daydreaming hard about putting them on somewhere at this year’s Northside.
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