The Unicorns Metropolis, Montreal QC, September 21
Published Sep 22, 2014Much like the mythical creature from which they took their name, an appearance from Montreal pop trio the Unicorns is rare, fleeting, magical and ultimately, a confusingly excellent experience. Battling frontmen Nick Thorburn and Alden Penner and drummer Jamie Thompson brought their first (and, allegedly, only) headlining show in nearly a decade to the city where they got their start, reconciling their quirky, punk-pop vibes with the cult status acquired during their hiatus.
The band's idiosyncratic humour, a potent mixture of cynical and blasé, made itself known before the trio hit the stage thanks to an opening video of men delivering increasingly incoherent praise for the band's return before settling on looping visuals akin to a '90s computer or DVD player screensaver while a bizarre PA announcement set the tone. Even once the band took to the stage, it took a while before the actual music portion began: a sloppy jam featuring sparse, bumbling noise lasted for a while before Thorburn announced the show was over, loosening expectations just enough before finally launching into the music.
The set was nearly completely devoted to the band's seminal LP, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?, playing nearly every track over the course of the night in ramshackle order (with the exception of "Let's Get Known"). Starting things off with "Jellybones," it became immediately apparent just why the band earned such a cult following over the decade since their breakup. Catchy, clever hooks and the duality between Thorburn and Penner sated the energetic, sardine-packed crowd of devoted fans.
For a much-hyped reunion show, the setup was as barebones as you can get: no guest appearances or extended versions of songs, just the original three members of the band and the songs that made them a(n indie rock) household name. The massive stage of Metropolis was likely the largest venue the band had headlined ever, and it showed; their charm and appeal was great, but it still felt like a smaller stage would have been more appropriate, although their cult status dictated otherwise. The arrangements felt thin sometimes, especially when they were filled out on the record, but the crowd's enthusiasm was enough to negate that qualm. The Unicorns were never meant to be the cleanest band, so every missed note or hastily delivered passage was just enhancing their ethos and backwards charm.
While Thorburn has been the Unicorn who has stayed most in the public eye since the band's breakup thanks to his myriad projects, including Islands, Human Highway and Mister Heavenly, it was Penner who was the star player of the evening: If it was his turn on guitar, bass, synth or vocals (duties he shared with Thorburn), the licks just cut through the audience like a knife, and his angelic voice seemed to have gotten even more heavenly with age. Thompson's drumming was tight, too, shuffling between drum kit and an electronic pad to add some great textures, and the intro to "Les Os" was executed perfectly. Thorburn is the closest thing the Unicorns has to a rock star, and it showed, from the crowd's praise (several audience members made it clear that their love was directed to Thorburn, not the others or band as a whole) to his sardonic quips, like dedicating "Child Star" to the deceased Corey Haim.
The main set ended with beautifully prophetic "The Unicorns: 2014," released a decade earlier, and the two sections (ominous vocal rock track and extended breakdown) were fantastic. The band just seemed really into it, making the most out of the song in the year it describes. For the inevitable encore, the band came out and played one note, White Stripes-style, before leaving the stagem then came back to do it again. The third time was the charm, launching into their iconic "I Was Born (A Unicorn)" with aplomb.
These songs were designed to be messy, and they were, but it worked beautifully. Considering the impromptu way the band imploded and broke up onstage in 2004, if this is it for the Unicorns, let it be it. Thorburn sung it best: "I'm ready to die," and if this is really the end, their Pop Montreal set was a good way to go out.