Though they’ve been overshadowed by such peers as Wolf Parade, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and one-time tour mates Arcade Fire, the Unicorns are one of the greatest pop bands to ever come out of Montreal. Lasting only four years, they released just one studio album, 2003’s Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?, a landmark of weirdo indie rock that’s a Technicolor hodgepodge of chaos and cartoonish instrumentation. With Nick Thorburn as Nick “Neil” Diamonds, Alden Penner as Alden Ginger, and Jamie Thompson as J’aime Tambeur, even their stage names conveyed a level of silliness that belies their superhuman skill in creating bizarre pop gems. Too good to last, by the end of 2004, they’d played their final shows. Asked why the band had split, Tambeur, who’d go on play with Diamonds on the debut album by beloved indie rock mainstay Islands, replied, “Why did the Unicorns stay together for as long as they did?”’
The band’s self-released debut EP, featuring a few songs that would be reworked for the album, was created solely by Diamonds and Ginger. But that summer, the pair had realized their limitations, adding Tambeur to help flesh out their sound. From the moment you pick up Cut Our Hair, you understand what the Unicorns are about. The cover – a stylized illustration of a surprised-looking rainbow being struck through the eye by a bolt of lightning – tells you exactly what they’ve got in store. The music, too, feels entirely cartoonish. Sea creatures and ghosts abound in a wash of bizarre noise and thrift shop instrumentation. Noise is a central concern, and it’s apt that opening track “I Don’t Wanna Die” begins with the kind of minor chaos that typifies much of the album, with weird synth noodling and drummer Tambeur laying down a scattered beat. A bit of studio vérité patter (“Are we rolling?”) and we’re off. Diamonds’ processed voice comes in with a schmaltzy keyboard line and a dire prediction: “I’ll die in a PLAAAAAAAAANE crash!,” he wails before making a cartoon explosion sound with his mouth.
Cut Our Hair takes steps to demystify the unknown, and one of life’s most terrifying unknowns features prominently: Death is ever-present. Opening and closing tracks about death make this clear yet approach the subject in a way that takes the terror out of it. This isn’t just tonal. The album’s ghosts aren’t necessarily friendly; “I told the gang we weren’t welcome/ The ghost made that clear,” Diamonds sings on “Ghost Mountain.” But in singing so much about them, they’re able to soothe their (and our) fears with the optimism that something does exist after death.
Mostly, these themes exist to pour some weirdness into the mix – and while it could have easily come off as grating or overly twee, the team manages to mold it into infectiousness. One of the album’s catchiest songs, “Jellybones” (a song strong enough to get a video, kicks off with a flash of keyboard racket, only to finally coalesce into a hip-shaker. “Sea Ghost” pulls a similar trick, replacing that noise with the sound of an honest-to-god recorder, an absurd and obnoxious instrument that, in Diamonds’ fingers, just works. Many of these songs begin with everything from door-banging and screaming (“Tuff Luff”) to out-of-context radio snippets about Satan (“Let’s Get Known”). There’s a lot of different sounds here, giving the album a distinct and organic kitchen sink appeal.
This is a fun (and funny) record, and the interplay between Diamonds and Ginger is a crucal part of that. While many bands feature dual vocals, their chemistry allows them to naturally build conversations into songs. EP holdover “Child Star” begins as a brooding number delivered mostly by a growling Diamonds, but it surfaces as a screwball tale that concludes with a fevered argument between the star and his jilted fan: “I’m still a big big star/ “No, you’re not”/ Yes, I am/ “No, you’re not”/ Yes, I am/ “No, you’re not.”
Mostly, though, these songs are just plain good. Worth showcasing specifically is “Tuff Luff,” a song that manages to seamlessly invade several different soundscapes effortlessly in just four minutes. Marvel at the moves it makes as it grows from a place with just Diamonds’ voice and a handful of notes plucked out with an achingly slow patience that builds to another dual-vocal climax. In the hands of a different band, this push/pull cycle might grow exhausting – but on Cut Our Hair, the band performs this dance in a way that not only works, but showcases their songwriting skill.
By the time we reach the end of the album, the Unicorns have passed through 12 unique spaces and emerge transformed, and “Ready to Die” is strangely breezy considering the implications. Even until the bitter end, Diamonds is doing his best to stay self-aware, to the point of namedropping the song title’s inspiration: “As I slurred that chorus/ The ghosts got Biggie Small sounds like a drill/ The death sweat suits me/ A death threat provides a thrill,” he strains, knowing he’s near the end. Though they’d go to put out just one more release, The Unicorns: 2014 EP, released in 2004, “Ready to Die” feels like an apt end: not with a bang, but with a cough and a full stop. For a band that dedicated to their own brand of weirdness, it wouldn’t be nearly as good of an end if they’d planned it.