I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
I’ve got this nagging suspicion that history is going to tag Mark Robinson and his various projects (Unrest, Air Miami, Flin Flon) with a “twee” category, in the same (electronic) breath as it bestows “dream pop,” “indie rock,” and “power pop” upon his legacy. Problem is, on a personal level, I’ve got a real low tolerance for twee bands, those precious girly-girl or girly-boy nerd groups who love pink and teal and candy and hearts and sing about puppy love and other dumb stuff. That’s not for me, right? You can keep your Moldy Peaches and your Tiger Traps, your Hello Kitty backpacks and barrettes, your K and Summershine records, your fey bookishness, your bicycles with streamers, and your tea parties. Please. The last thing I need is for bands to pretend their music is made by and for children and everyone’s happy and safe all the time. I get that twee was a “punk” reaction to punk music. But its aesthetics are grating. (I’ll give passes to a few like the Smiths, but Belle and Sebastian has aged less-than-well for me.)
OK, rant over. That leaves us with Flin Flon (and Mark Robinson), who definitely have some twee tendencies, but they transcend them well enough to relegate them to mere blips on the songwriting radar. Case in point: “Buffalo Narrows” continues Robinson’s obsession with famous women, here mentioning both Helen Keller and Patty Duke. Although a more overt tendency in the past in Unrest, having written entire songs in tribute to Cath Carrol and Isabel Bishop (and picturing each on an LP and EP cover, respectively), the brief mentions here reveal Robinson in his lyrical wheelhouse. “Odessa” is his bouncy, giddy sex ode, and you can practically hear him squealing with delight as he sings “I want to go see you all undressed / with an ascot much much less / in the buff I’m so impressed” and “I have been around the pool with you / in the office in the closet / in the bath in the Jacuzzi.” (You may be wondering who wears an ascot these days – the answer is no one. What’s next, a bow tie? Oh right… c’mon Mark.) There’s even a song about food, “Yellowknife,” wherein the band attends a 4th of July block party featuring an all-Indian menu: tandoori, masala, vindaloo, banana, samosa – yum! And that’s pretty much all the song’s about.
Where Flin Flon really succeeds, and makes palatable their precious-ish sentiments, is the musicianship. Rhythm is at the forefront, and when Robinson’s spidery guitar runs are absent (and they’re absent quite a bit to give the rhythm some room), Nattles’ (of Cold Cold Hearts) bass and Matt Datesman’s (True Love Always) drums are taut, tense, and precise. Nattles’ low end provides deep rumble and dark melody, often at once – it’s the standout instrument on the album, and it works greatly. The interplay is highlighted most particularly in the first two tracks, “Kamloops” and “Red Deer,” as each begin with Mark solo on guitar, tersely plucking arpeggiated melodies, before dropping out of the mix and giving way to the bass and drums. After the listener is acquainted with the rhythm, the guitar and vocals re-enter, and what were sparse and separate parts coalesce into a dense whole – Nattles and Mark are impressive at making disparate melodic runs work so precisely as a unit. Mark says it best himself, describing band interplay and dynamics in this quote from a 2001 MOD Magazine article: “Flin Flon is very inorganic: There’s no fading up or down, a song is either on or off. You know, when a band is playing a song, there’s a quiet part or a chorus part. . . . Flin Flon is best when the parts fit together.” These different parts are tightly written and performed, and with only guitar (no chords, only single notes, save for the strums on album-ender “Colgate”), bass, and drums, no overdubs, Flin Flon achieves a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.
There’s a bit of wrapping up to do on some of this album’s idiosyncrasies, so I’ll use my dearest organizational friend, the bulleted list, in order to tick all the boxes:
- Mark Robinson seems obsessed by Canada – each song title is a Canadian town (Kamloops, Moose Jaw, Medicine Hat).
- The cover art is some sort of map of a section of Canada.
- Each song has about 10 seconds of silence after it – this is really annoying. The reasoning was for each song to stand apart from the others as its own single, essentially making up an album full of singles. (I believe the vinyl version has a locked groove after each song, requiring the listener to pick up the needle and physically move it to each track – glad I don’t have the vinyl.)
So beyond this record, if you’re in need of a Mark Robinson fix, keep an eye out for the Unrest reunion shows this summer. Just don’t wear any pink or teal sweater vests – I’ll be whomping twee nerds at a venue near you.
(Disclaimer: I really have no dislike for nerds, having a healthy amount of nerd DNA myself, nor will I be whomping anybody. I’m not even all that perturbed by twee culture – I can embrace some and keep some at arm’s length. You won’t catch me in twee gear, though.)
RIYL: Mark Robinson, Unrest, Air Miami