Does everyone listen to Unwound's ‘Leaves Turn Inside You’ each October or is it just me?


Unwound Photo provided by Numero Group

Fall is the scariest season. The prettiest too.

Early on there are many days where the sun's still out, the leaves are coloring, and the world feels aglow with oranges and yellows. Sometime in October the light changes; the leaves dry and on overcast days it feels like the blood's been sucked out of the world. The bundling starts—the little jackets come out, jeans, flannel, boots. We're better-dressed, but all the choices are practical, purposeful, utilitarian. Our steps quicken outside. Halloween comes. It's the season of apple cider, pumpkin picking, and ultraviolent slasher movies.

When coffee places pull out the pumpkin spice, I reach for Leaves Turn Inside You, Unwound's double album swan song, released (somewhat ironically) in spring 2001.

The title, of course, suggests either one's mood taking on the character of the season, or, if we leave the weather out, the constant process of individual change, elegantly phrased. But for me Leaves feels like a fall album for the way its sounds evoke the increased effort of fall, the dim light of cloudy October days The drumming on Leaves Turn Inside You is sluggish and behind the beat, the guitars intricate and relatively clean, only occasionally boiling over into distortion, and the vocals intricate and mantra-like.

Leaves Turn Inside You hovers perpetually on the edge, never truly relaxed yet never opening all the way up. There’s always tension, sometimes increasing, sometimes decreasing. The sound is dark, even menacing, but it doesn't climax by rocking out; instead, the most intense moment arrives via string crescendo. This augments a fast, march-like rhythm on "Terminus," after which the band fades out, leaving the strings sawing upward like a horror movie score. Finally, a little over seven minutes into its runtime, the song smash-cuts into a completely unrelated groove of chiming guitar over tight drums and a stop-start bassline, with a laid back keyboard melody overtop—a sudden, wide-open vista of sound.

This pervasive menace feels appropriate during the lead-up to Halloween. The music sounds haunted, and the lyrics too—full of weariness, despondent wordplay, and at least one literal ghost story (on "Look a Ghost").

Unwound (guitarist Justin Trosper, bassist Vern Rumsey, and drummer Sarah Lund) built a studio to record Leaves, thinking it the logical next step in a career that had seen the length of their sessions increase with each album. The band never put out another album, but the effort paid off. Leaves Turn Inside You does the studio-as-an-instrument thing in interesting ways, without ever falling into cliché.

Unwound was a post-hardcore band whose use of keys and orchestral instruments never compromises the music's roots in punk. The elements are thoughtfully recorded: The electronic instruments never feel canned, and the drum sounds are excellent. The recording seems to prioritize Lund's distinctive feel; I’m only speculating here, but I hear a lot of room tone preserved in the drums, rather than close mics, which when accentuated too far can make each drum feel vacuum-sealed. Sometimes it sounds like Lund uses brushes or bamboo rods and just hits really hard—another unorthodox choice for post-hardcore that feels somehow natural.

I don't remember exactly how or when I acquired Leaves Turn Inside You, and that may add the mystery I hear in it. In spring 2012, I bought an iPod Classic so I could bring my whole collection to college in my pocket, and like many music dweebs before me, I used the new (to me) technology to try to hear everything.

The next two or three years were dominated by torrent downloads of more music than I could even listen to, entire discographies of artists I knew were supposed to be important, from which I would get into one album, or just the handful of singles I already knew, taking years to explore further, if at all. At some point, my interest momentarily piqued by an AllMusic review or an old Pitchfork list, Leaves Turn Inside You made its way into my uTorrent queue. I think it languished in my iTunes library for a year or two before I listened to it, by which time finding it in a dusty corner of my hard drive felt receiving an anonymous gift.

The downloaded copy of Leaves I fell for is pretty sketchy, too. I was usually careful to find high quality album rips, but this one came with the tracks out of order, the sound slightly muffled and clippy, and a split second on "Look a Ghost" where the music cuts out entirely. For some reason, correcting the track order in iTunes never corrects it in my iPod, so in order to hear the album in order in my car, I had to copy the songs into a separate playlist. (Even if I someday upgrade to a vinyl copy, because I'm feeling a bit sheepish writing about an album I acquired this way, I will probably save the strange mp3 copy that introduced me to it.)

A personal connection to a piece of music that may be fading into obscurity is a curious thing. Leaves' legacy is tough to trace: It placed fourth on Pitchfork's list of the best albums of 2001 but disappears from their final list of the best albums of the aughts. (It is on their list of the "50 Best Indie Rock Albums of the Pacific Northwest," however.) Numero Group have released Unwound's entire discography in four box sets, and the band has a nice archival website, so the music's there for those who look. But since Numero’s bread-and-butter is re-releasing esoterica, even these reissues add to the sense that this is a classic becoming a lost classic.

Leaves feels both near and far from today's indie rock. I guarantee some of the major bands of this decade's emo revival love it, but you can’t draw a direct line to it as easily as you can connect, say, the first American Football album. You'd have to look to metal to find music with a similar mix of beauty and darkness, but Leaves isn't precisely a "heavy" album, either.

It's wrong to say "they don't make 'em like that anymore" because there is no categorical ’em here for they to not be making anymore. Post-hardcore bands don't make double albums with mellotron and harpsichord and ragtime samples. Unwound did. It sounds great today.