Unrest’s Perfect Teeth turns 25
Unrest’s Perfect Teeth, their fifth LP released in 1993, and first on 4AD, turned out to be their final album. It followed up the critically and fan revered Imperial f.f.r.r., an album that almost put Unrest into the major leagues of indie rock, landing on many top ten year-end lists.
The band, impervious to commercial pressure seemingly, released a follow-up commensurate to Imperial, and even more ambitious. The stuttering, shimmering ballad “Angel I Will Walk You Home,” the ebullient thrash workout “Cath Carroll,” and lovelorn, propulsive jangle anthem “Make Out Club” are widely recognized as Unrest classics, the latter even becoming the name of an early dating site geared towards fans of indie pop (including Calvin Johnson as a member). This was in the ‘90s, far before dating sites dictated love lives to the level they do now, and confounded many with its ambiguity, as it wasn’t exactly Tinder.
Robinson seems bemused ultimately by the honor. “It was odd at first, but then I met the fellow that started the site. He loved the song and the band and is a top-notch nice guy.”
But that’s a bit of a footnote on what’s a magnificent album, with the lineup rounded out by Phil Krauth on drums and Bridget Cross on bass. Both had single songwriting credits—Krauth on the spare and mechanical “West Coast Love Affair,” a bizarro cousin to the VU’s “The Gift” in its unsparing obsessiveness. The band, who were touring with Stereolab in support of the album, found that Tim Gane took something of an interest in the song, and Richard Baluyut of Versus, a contemporaneous Teenbeat act who toured concurrently and often found themselves in the same cities hanging out, recalled Gane “making fun of Phil Krauth’s ‘West Coast Love Affair’ on piano…” prior to a California show. “I can’t say I remember that,” Robinson admits. “But I’m guessing it was a ‘laughing with’ and not a ‘laughing at’ situation. We all got along pretty well with each other [Unrest and Stereolab].”
Cross’s languid ballad “Stylized Ampersand” closes the album like an eerie yet gentle shutting of a door, almost incorporeal in its bereft yearning. It’s infused with a stilted, woozy guitar figure, and is a marked departure from Robinson’s typically more upbeat songs, which were incongruent with his often sinister, licentiously obsessive romantic lyrics, a dissonance that was a huge part of the band’s brilliance and appeal.
The album was initially released as a 7” box set, unusual even then, and odder to consider in our era of digital inundation when CDs and albums are chores for many to listen to, but Robinson explains pragmatically, “We made it a point to keep the vinyl rights for North America. I knew 4AD was releasing a 12″ LP, and that their packaging would be tough to match, so I wanted to do something different. It’s hard to imagine today as the LP remains king, but the 7″ single was the format of indie music in the early ’90s. It made perfect sense to me to release the whole thing on 45s.”
The album was later released on cassette and CD and 12”, but the 7” version was the crown jewel, reissued in 2010 on Teenbeat, validating Robinson’s decision. The packaging is beautiful, and it forces listeners to think slowly and focus on the music, a rarity in 2018. The box can still be purchased via the label’s website, and is essential for any lover of either the album in another format or any of Unrest’s work, an idiosyncratic distillation of their greatness.
Robinson’s typically nonchalant when it’s mentioned that it’s many fans’ favorite Unrest album, saying, “Yeah, a lot of people seem to like this one. Then again there are a lot of people that tell me their favorite is Malcolm X Park or Kustom Karnal Blackxploitation. I like that we did five albums that are pretty different from each other. At least it sounds like that to me.”
The band reunited briefly in 2010, and played the tremulous “Soon it is Going to Rain” during some of those dates, as well as “Vibe Out!,” which was considered for the album, but didn’t surface until the Cath Carroll EP in 1994, fitting really, as it foreshadowed Robinson’s future band “Flin Flon” with its Factory Records-stylized bassline. But Robinson says he has no plans to play any of these songs soon solo, if he even decides to give a rare performance, as he’s become less and less active musically as he’s grown older, as time doesn’t allow for it often, with him residing with his family in Boston and working a full-time job in addition to keeping the Teenbeat label functioning at a scaled back level.
Still, Perfect Teeth is an artifact of early ‘90s indie rock, a superb album obsessed over by a small legion of fans that never broke through to mass success despite 4AD’s backing, and decisions by the band that may or may not have sabotaged any chance of finding a huge audience, as they always operated on their terms, unencumbered by any label’s pressure despite the stakes being higher than ever, as evidenced by them turning down an opening slot on Nirvana’s In Utero tour in 1993. Nirvana had covered the band’s classic “Yes She Is My Skinhead Girl,” and Kurt Cobain requested them, but they declined, in line with their aforementioned ethos.
Robinson recounts, “We were offered a few opening dates in Florida on their arena tour, I believe. While playing in an arena may have had held some sort of novelty, we knew that we’d essentially be ignored as the first of two opening bands while people got settled into their seats. We had been doing a lot of shows where we were opening for much bigger bands and people seemed to just ignore us. Florida was far away and I don’t think it seemed like it would be all that much fun, playing at venues that were the antithesis of the clubs we enjoyed performing at.” He continues, “On top of that, I don’t think any of us were gigantic Nirvana fans. if so, we probably would have done it. We did play with them in 1990,” and adds, “Fun fact, their last album was recorded at the same studio we recorded Perfect Teeth. They had left just a couple of weeks before we arrived.”
Robinson recalls one member of the band’s team disapproving, and recounts it rather gleefully. “My favorite thing about this was the reaction from our booking agent when we said we weren’t interested. ‘What are you trying to accomplish with this band?!!’” And really, with such brilliant songs and a perceived lackadaisical attitude unconcerned with mass appeal, the answer would seem to be creatively wasting time, which encapsulated the elusive brilliance of this great band whose core member typically recalls with a shrug, instead moving on to other bands such as Flin Flon and Air Miami in the ‘90s without the same level of visibility or sales, before slowing things to a crawl in the ‘00s and ‘10s, with obscure solo albums and releases Cotton Candy, with his wife, Evelyn Hurley, which are rife with levity and childlike playfulness. But it’s remarkable to recall a time when his band’s casual genius seemed poised for something bigger, something he clearly didn’t care much about, preferring to struggle on his own terms instead of making uncomfortable concessions. This was Unrest, and it was a key ingredient in what made them so appealing—their integrity, which is largely lost in “indie” in this bust/boom era of licensing and jockeying for any sort of exposure due to digital inundation.
Unrest’s model is an anachronism now, but perhaps not a bad one for modern bands to examine and emulate. They played the game on their rigid terms, with little concern for either winning or losing. Because it’s just a game, one played with élan in Unrest’s world throughout their gloriously imperfect swansong Perfect Teeth, a world amenable to playing for the most important audience of all—the band themselves.