The Past Presents revisits revered albums from the past 20-25 years to ask the question, “Is this album still a classic, or has it lost its edge over the years?”. Was it a great record for that particular time and place, or is it something we’ll be passing on to our kids? It also looks at the “lost classics” – countless albums that should have earned more attention but for one reason or another fell through the cracks.
I think most avid music fans can document the highs, lows and even the mid-ranges of their lives by pointing to a specific artist or album that is synonymous with a particular event or period of life. These albums typically stay with you for years, remaining a part of the fabric of your life story. For me, Unrest’s last album, Perfect Teeth, will be forever linked to my four years in college. Perfect Teeth, along with a handful of other standouts, kicked open the door to a whole new world of music that never surfaced in the small rural town I called home. This album was released in August of 1993, just as I was entering my sophomore year. As a freshman I’d discovered the Garden of Eden that was the Washington D.C. indie-rock world. In addition to Dischord, there were labels like Simple Machines and Teenbeat, helmed by Unrest front man Mark Robinson. Among these three labels nearly all of the regions’ best bands found a home.
While Dischord was home to the punk and hardcore acts, Simple Machines and Teenbeat took care of the indie-rock bands. As all three labels grew, Simple Machines and Teenbeat started to add bands from out of the immediate D.C. area, but you always knew that these labels were committed to the music of the Washington D.C. region. It seems a bit crazy now, almost 20 years down the road, that two labels of such prominence could pull from the same indie-rock pool and both do so well. I guess that speaks to the number of quality bands in D.C. at that time. Another factor was the labels had very distinct personalities. Simple Machines embraced a more serious, earnest brand of indie-rock, while Teenbeat tended to align themselves with more playful, and sometimes adventurous, bands. I did and still do hold both labels in high esteem, but they were very different animals to me.
Perfect Teeth embodies the playful-yet-adventurous nature of Teen Beat. Unrest’s early years were filled with albums that tried on a variety of styles from punk to hardcore to indie-rock, all done well, but none leaving the listener completely convinced that this we what Unrest was about. Things started to come together on the Imperial F.F.R.R. album, but by the time Perfect Teeth came along their sound had solidified. The root of Perfect Teeth is Unrest’s classic indie-rock sound hung on Mark Robinson’s frenetic guitar passages. The songs are instantly recognizable and infectious just upon hearing the guitar. “Make Out Club” was the closest thing Unrest had to a “hit” and it’s full of that guitar sound as well as tons of hooks. It’s a classic indie-rock hit in every sense. “Cath Carroll” is cut from a similar cloth. These songs are what late-period Unrest was all about.
Those songs are fantastic, but the album has something more. Taking time to listen to it now I find that Perfect Teeth was a much more daring record than I would have thought in, say, 1998. Somehow Unrest managed to tag their pop songs with experimental passages, and married the two so well you hardly notice it. Even the song arrangement is a bit inventive. The album opens and closes with quiet, ambient tunes sung by bassist Bridget Cross. Both songs are great, but I’m still amazed that “Angel I Will Walk You Home” kicks off the record, leaving the listener completely unprepared for the indie-rock sucker punch that is “Cath Carroll”. Sometimes that punch hurts, but it’s always refreshing.
After “Cath Carroll” gets your blood pressure up the record settles into “So Sick”, a slower, acoustic song with a nice mellow groove provided by Cross and the always steady drumming of Phil Krauth. You just start to get lost in the melodies when the whole song is taken over by a hypnotic space-noise. We rejoin the melodic groove soon enough and all is right with the world. Again, the beauty here is that this is so well done, you barely notice it happened. Amazing! Some of these experiments go on a bit long, like the last half of “Light Command”. You think you can write that song off but, the longer you listen to it, the experiment works and it doesn’t matter how long it is, it’s just perfect. Who puts a song of oscillating keyboard noises (“Food and Drink Synthesizer”) right in the middle of a genius indie-rock album? Unrest. Again, as much as it doesn’t belong, Perfect Teeth is not right without it.
Coming out on the other side of “Food and Drink Synthesizer” you get the majesty of “Soon It Is Going to Rain” This song is a beautiful pairing of Robinson’s voices and light guitar lines. This song soars and grows in grandeur…until it goes off the deep end for the last three and a half minutes. The beautiful little song turns into a Mark Robinson guitar lock-groove before collapsing in its own melodic chaos. Another surprise is that my current favorite track on Perfect Teeth is “West Coast Love Affair”, a nearly perfect track sung by Krauth. This song was always lost in the shuffle when the album was on constant rotation in my dorm room. Krauth’s hushed vocals are full of mystery you don’t really find on most Unrest songs.
Perfect Teeth would be one of five records I would hand someone if they wanted me to explain indie-rock. To me, this album is about as perfect as they get. It brings together excellent songs while breaking many unwritten standards for great records. Unrest created a timeless slice of indie-rock that was both ahead of its time and a direct reflection of its time.