“Yet do much less – so much less!
Well, less is more.”
Comparing Spare Snare to the architects Mies van der Rohe, Buckminster Fuller, the artist Andrea del Santo and opening a review by quoting the poet Robert Browning may seem a little strange. These, on the surface, are strange bedfellows for a fairly obscure Scottish band to be keeping. Stick with it for a moment though as all of the above believed in their own unique visions, in a certain aesthetic, in different kinds of minimalism which often confused people in their lifetimes but also gained a respect and deep love from those who got it, leaving an inspirational body of work for later admirers to assess and enjoy.
Spare Snare are sometimes described as the best band you’ve never heard but they have developed a loyal and committed following. Live shows are a rare but special event and they only sporadically feature in end of year best of round-ups. And yet they have quietly built up an impressive body of works, some 11 albums now (excluding compilations) of which, Unicorn, is the newest.
Much like John Peel’s description of The Fall – “Always the same, always different” – each Spare Snare album is recognisably a Spare Snare album but they evolve in their own way. They progress but always sound like Spare Snare, apart from fashions but avid fans of aspects of pop culture. On initial plays Unicorn sounds like the darkest, bleakest album of their oeuvre, a stark, at times austere record that reflects on our turbulent times, growing older and a sense that the old motif that things will get better has fallen on its face spectacularly. And yet, it remains a record of some beauty and enjoyment.
Opening with ‘Hope You Never Go’ with a muted keyboard introduction then a trademark two string guitar riff and pounding drums, this is the most ‘Spare Snare’ song on the album. The arrangement is superficially quite sparse but interspersed with bursts of samples, it builds up in increments, burying itself in your head long after it finishes. With lines like ‘This stuff is killing us / And yet we require some more’ it looks hard at our modern attraction to consumerism, how we define ourselves by the things we own. The mood is anxious yet hopeful.
‘Work I Am’ brings an uplift in tempo with a looping guitar line and tight rhythm. A paean to the dream of escaping the rat race and contemporary life, it has a sweet melody, but the repeated refrain of ‘It’s keeping me insane’, sung close to the microphone gives the song a claustrophobic feel.
‘All I’m Hating’ has a heavier, more bruising rhythm but neat melodies and an uplifting feel with its gorgeous tune and arrangement. By contrast, ‘Eyelash’ is incredibly downbeat and melancholic. There is a psychedelic, eerie mood to the song as Jan sings of isolation and the struggle to find peace and beauty in a chaotic world:
“Feeding storms in the night
I am holding
Feeding storms in the fright
And I am holding”
‘Eyelash’ is probably my favourite song on Unicorn. There is a delicate yet robust feel to the song with its muted backing vocals and subtle arrangement. ‘You’re Not Home’ is a niggling, insidious song, with a resigned sounded vocal that suggests the game of politics, if not life, is rigged:
“I’m playing draughts
You’re playing chess
The song builds up on a repetitive refrain coloured with little flurries of sounds. The words open up a wider sense of the mess of the current thing we call the democratic process where most of us think we are playing by the rules while some of those in power are making up their own rules:
“This democracy is not yours
It’s not yours
It’s not yours.”
‘You’re Not Home’ is probably the most political song Spare Snare have ever recorded. It is subtle rather than hectoring, mixing the wider world with a personal view as the vocal becomes more disembodied and anguished.
‘Soft Rains’ is an odd, quirky instrumental interlude. Tiny little sounds and keyboard washes and a sampled radio broadcast both soothe and unsettle me. ‘Not As Smart As You’ is a return to an older Spare Snare theme, Jan / Spare Snare as perpetual outsiders, which first emerged on an early recording, ‘Skateboard Punk Rocker’. The vocals slip into a falsetto, the music has a skewed feel to it and it works pretty effectively. ‘Loving Life’ has a great arrangement, a buoyant rhythm and yet sounds slightly subdued at points. It also contains some insane backing vocals and lots of references to animals and creatures that Jan is happy to be including Dinosaurs and, finally, the Unicorn of the title.
‘The Disease’ has a pretty full sound yet again, the instrumentation seems quite wild yet subdued in the mix. The simple, primitive drums and distorted guitars make it a little reminiscent of an early Jesus and Mary Chain or The Stooges ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ played by inverts. The final song, ‘The Nuclear Night’ is a fitting finale, an extended sample about the potential consequences of a nuclear conflict, something which seems to be back in people’s minds after an absence. It plays out to the most ebullient of instrumentals, seeming to ask, can you dance in the shadow of the mushroom cloud?
Unicorn is a very understated record, highly enjoyable but also curious. At points it sounds uplifting, at others, subdued and haunted. There is a defiance to it but also a sense of resignation and even despair. With each play, I love this album more and more. In Scottish lore, the Unicorn is seen as a proud and haughty creature which would rather die than be captured and tamed rather than its current pop cultural reference as something cute and whimsical. A symbol of purity and grace rather than a twee, creature. And that older description seems to sum up Spare Snare aptly. They have a rare integrity and should be embraced along with this fine, fine record.
Frontman and Chute Records head honcho Jan Burnett kindly talks us through the writing and recording of Unicorn.
Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of Unicorn? It feels like a much more political album than previous albums? Did you have certain themes in mind when you began writing the songs?
“In musical terms, very much a collaborative album.
“In terms of lyrical themes, it is my most political both in government politics and personal politics, not much humour, though there is a little bit in ‘Loving Life’. Having a daughter in primary school brings a whole new perspective on how people are voting. The Radio Moscow recordings come from a cassette I made from the radio in 1984.
How did you approach the recording? How long did the album take to record and mix?
“Each band member gave me tracks to work on, we’d record on top of the original idea, I’d add a vocal melody, lyrics, some other bits and mix it. The vocals were all done in a day. Someone said it’s my strongest vocal on records. I know there are flaws or vulnerabilities in my vocals, I deliberately kept them in. Difficult to say how long, probably a couple of weeks in total.”
Why did you choose Unicorn as the title?
“It’s definitely not the fluffy kind, but that’s for the listener to find out. It’s a nod to the Scottish National Animal.”
Over the years, has the approach to a new record changed? What gets things started?
“Yes, more collaborative, even less time being wasted when we’re together. I’m a better editor now, less is more in terms of lyrics and music. I’m not afraid to chop a track in half where necessary.”
How do you feel about Unicorn now that is out in the world as a completed thing?
“I’m chuffed in how it looks, feels (reverse card) and sounds. Short and sharp, beginning, middle and end. My friend Graham Anderson did the art without hearing anything. I just gave him the title, he did around eight pieces and I chose the ones that suited. Our first ever digipack.”
Any plans to play live now that the album has been released?
“Absolutely none, watch this space.”
Unicorn is out now. You can purchase it directly on CD or download from sparesnare.bandcamp.com/album/unicorn
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