As I was leaving for work this morning, I grabbed a handful of CDs from the racks. One of them was Unrest's 1992 classic, "Imperial f.f.r.r."
I was a year out of college, had just quit a proto-grunge band (I hadn't played with them in months and decided to go see The Pixies and Pere Ubu instead of playing a show with them... I say I quit, but they would say I was kicked out). I was a little lost in Columbus, Ohio, working at the mall for minimum wage and barely touching my drum set. What little money I had went to buying records.
It was the cover, peering at me from the LP shelf at Used Kids, that attracted me. The indie marketing worked...
The US cover of "Impreial f.f.r.r."
It had a definite indie vibe to it; a vintage stereo amp featured in a clean layout. The title, "Imperial f.f.r.r" made little sense but it's meaning became clear after reading "full frequency range recording" elsewhere in the packaging. Unrest's label, Teen Beat, always played with retro themes, from a vintage Sammy Davis Jr. picture on the single for "Yes She Is My Skinhead Girl" to the catalog model, in a yellow raincoat and holding a clear plastic umbrella, on the cover of Eggs' "Bruiser" LP. Not only did label owner and Unrest leader Mark Robinson create a brand identity for his label, but often complimented the music's vibe. While the music isn't retro, the image fit. Here was indie music, smartly packaged and marketed, that was a natural progression of pop music: sugary and catchy, experimental and groovey. The vintage stereo on the cover somehow connected with that idea.
Drop the needle and the first thing you hear is a track titled "Volume Reference Tone." Yes, the 1kHz tone that was required by the mastering engineer is included as a song. You get the feeling that you have delved into some record company's vault, pulled a master tape, threaded it through the reel to reel, and hit play.
Immediately afterwards, you are hit with the happy declaration of love, "Suki." As Robinson sings, "wanna be with you all the time... Suki!" you get the feeling that you're hearing some lost Brady Bunch track. There's an innocence to it, both in the lyrics and in the band's performance. This isn't a band of schooled musicians... this is a group of amateurs who are discovering pop. Throughout the previous decade, their innocence was captured on a number of cassette releases, singles, and LPs that featured experimental jamming, noise, and very little songcraft. "Imperial f.f.r.r." found Unrest excited by the simplicity, and the guilty pleasures, of pop music.
It doesn't take long for the album to take an introspective turn. The title track, "Imperial," features a beautiful, repetitive picked guitar line accompanying Mark Robinson's lonely voice, shifting in and out of verse and chorus melodies and drenched in reverb. The tension this creates is sad, beautiful, and alienating. "Sun is whiter than whiter / could be a witness to / burning out / killing and talking." It all breaks at the end, when the chords shift to a lower, slower coda. It's breathtaking and beautiful. Suddenly you wonder where the innocence went...
The experimental side makes an appearance on "Champion Nines." At it's base is a funky breakbeat, possibly sampled, possibly programmed. Over top are a series of bells and chimes, tracks stacked on top of each other in a dense wall of sound. A bass line weaves through, barely noticeable. The drums stop, start, and stop again. The track ends. Despite it's simplicity and obliqueness, it works. It's listenable and funky... what more could you want?
The album continues to fluctuate between these three extremes... the enthusiastic pop of "I Do Believe You Are Blushing," "Isabel" and "Cherry Cream On," the seriousness of "June" (featuring vocals by Bridget Cross) and "Loyola," and the alienating weirdness of "Firecracker" and "Sugarshack." And somehow it all fits and makes sense.
"Imperial f.f.r.r." was released in 1992, a world of marketed teen pop and the violent overthrow of pop music by Nirvana. It has never found a big audience, partly due to it's strange mixture of songs and it's limited distribution. However, it probably has more in common with Pavement's "Slanted and Enchanted," an album that found a large audience in the indie college crowd. Personally, I found Unrest's release to be more inspiring and influential than Pavement's debut. Here was a record with a depth that you couldn't find at your indie record store. I remember asking a clerk at a hip New York record store, "I've been listening to that Unrest nonstop; can you recommend something else like that?" His lack of help, in retrospect, speaks volumes about the record. Listening to it today, for the first time in years, I'm struck by how well it has stood up.
The cover of the UK edition.
Unrest would sign to Warner Brothers and release one more album, "Perfect Teeth," before "breaking up" (to get out of their contract?). Robinson and Cross formed Air Miami, delving into 80s retro for an album or two before breaking up. Mark Robinson still runs Teen Beat, and has released a few solo albums. Though all are enjoyable, Robinson has never quite recaptured the spirit of "Imperial f.f.r.r." And considering how special this album is, that's probably a good thing.