Sharps & Flats

From Kiss to loungecore, Kenneth Anger to blaxploitation, Unrest anticipated '90s hipster fads way back ... in 1988.

Topics: Music,

Sharps & Flats

Unrest were the early ’90s apotheosis of Amer-indie pop, two boys and a girl from Arlington, Va., obsessed with quietness, good shoes and beautiful fonts. The band’s album covers recalled the cool, classy designs used by English labels like Factory and 4AD, the latter of which released a couple of Unrest EPs and one album. Their lithe songs could wring romantic nuance out of two or three notes.

Unrest earned most of their small group of fans after “Imperial f.f.r.r.” (1992), a droney stunner of the purest, quickest guitar strum. But the group had been around for seven years before “Imperial,” and singer/guitarist Mark Robinson had been putting out weird little records and tapes on his own TeenBeat label just as long.

Two recent rereleases of Unrest’s second and third records, “Malcolm X Park” (1988) and “Kustom Karnal Blackxploitation” (1990), capture a different side of the group. In the late-’80s, Unrest were a junk-culture dynamo. Robinson and his bandmates from back then — bassist Dave Park, drummer Phil Krauth and assorted guests — anticipated several ’90s hipster trends: the Kiss revival (their cover of “Strutter”); loungecore (Sammy Davis tribute “Eyeball From the Socket of Davis”); Kenneth Anger vogue (songs titled “Invoking the Godhead” and “Lucifer Rising,” after the director’s movies); and blaxploitation fever (“Black Power Dynamo” and “Kill Whitey”).

On “Malcolm X Park” (named after a park in Washington Northwest) Unrest are like an indie pop version of the Faces, a bunch of sloppy eclectics writing catchy songs and recording them in what must be one take. “Castro 59″ and “Ben’s Chili Bowl” are guttural, tossed-off rockers, while “Christina” sounds like what Unrest would go on to play in the ’90s, blissed-out girl-songs with two chords and a set of cardboard drums.

“Kustom Karnal” (there’s Anger again) trades the pop in for screamy grinders and jarringly dirgey songs like “Click Click” and “The Foxey Playground.” But amid the bump and wah, Robinson’s heart is never far from his sleeve. He still finds a way to sneak in “She Makes Me Shake Like a Soul Machine” in between the Melvins-style neo-metal lines. Robinson sings a fall-apart acoustic ode about bumping into a lost love, with pure heart-rending conviction. R. Kelly should be so earnest.

1991 is remembered as the year that what was called alternative music broke into the mainstream. To a certain extent, but on a much smaller level, Unrest broke right on schedule. Park left and Brigit Cross took his place. Around that time, Unrest’s three-minute masterpiece, “Yes She Is My Skinhead Girl,” became a hit on college radio and even showed up in Spin.

After a handful of singles and one more full LP, on their beloved 4AD, Unrest called it a day in 1994. TeenBeat became completely identified with the indie pop boom, and in some ways never quite recovered from the bust. In February, Robinson, who had subsequently played in Air Miami and the excellent-but-astoundingly New Orderish Flin Flon, packed his bags and moved TeenBeat to Boston.

If bands, or artists, are only as interesting as the changes they make, Unrest’s two strange, stellar pre-Nirvana artifacts are still both worth listening to, as both archeology and more. When everything changed, the old faux-metal Unrest simply gave way to a group that played 30-minute Can tributes. At the time, the shift didn’t seem so odd. Now it’s clear that those were different times.

Joe Gross is a Washington writer.

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