I’m not going to lie, I was mentally preparing myself to absolutely despise this record.
Mothertongue are a new band to the scene, recently signed with Bad Elephant Music, and Unsongs is their debut record. And like all new bands who are new to the scene, they need a mighty powerful press release of garbage to grab some attention. And while “an inspirational, progressive-pop melting pot with touches of punk and ska thrown in for good measure” may be attention-grabbing for sure, it’s not necessarily attention of the good kind. Recent years have seen a trend of incredibly divisive progressive albums that have been given the mocking title of “spork-core”. Led by an aggressive opposition to Native Construct’s debut record Quiet World, but with roots as far back as Mr Bungle and Dog Fashion Disco, spork-core takes its name from the infamous “Penguin of Doom” copypasta, and is characterised by groups who see being purposefully random or unpredictable as being clever or humourous, frequently slamming as many styles or genres into one section as possible for no apparent reason, with ska and punk being frequently in the roster. Call me bitter or old or no-fun, but I just can’t take those sorts of albums seriously. They’re juvenile and childish and frequently throw in sections that would honestly only appeal to someone with ADD and an affinity for toilet humour. It takes prog music and attempts to be “really really really prog” by synonymising ‘progressive’ with ‘everything-and-the-kitchen-sink’.
Unsongs is not quite one of those records, despite the band doing their damnedest to give the impression that it is. For starters, I think I should point out that this isn’t really a true blue prog record. No doubt this will appeal to many prog fans, and the instrumental proficiency is up there with the elite, but this to me feels far more like a third wave ska record done with a bit more complexity, like a modern RX Bandits. Native Construct and their ilk frequently dotted ska or reggae or any other gimmick genres in their gimmick-ridden mess for quirky ADD cred, but Mothertongue have it as part of their compositional DNA. Once upon a time in another life I was a fan of Streetlight Manifesto and Five Iron Frenzy and those sorts of modern ska punk groups, and I find myself enjoying this as a fan of catchy horn-ridden punk far more than a fan of prog.
For the majority of this album, Mothertongue manage to bridge eclecticism with fun with an admirable avoidance for so-called “spork-core”. There’s an odd charm to much of this album that I admit I enjoy a bit, despite it being against nearly everything I stand for. I almost put it down to the fact that the band are indeed from Manchester, and their tongue-in-cheek compositional style seems a little more natural than their American counterparts. I feel some strong connections with British indie groups like Franz Ferdinand or early Arctic Monkeys here, with fun and eclecticism being the primary goals of the music, but being done with a bit more subtlety and sense than many other groups.
How much you enjoy this album is really to do with what your tolerance for this sort of stuff is. Some people will hate this entire album on principle, some will love it for the same reasons. I find myself somewhere in the middle, with parts of this being impressively enjoyable, but a handful of sections going a bit over my line of tolerance into the dreaded region of sporks. Ironically, one of the few times the band properly cross the line is in the promo single “Nautilus”, which I heard prior to the full album and was part of what made me believe this would be an utter mess. The song itself is fine, with an enjoyable Billy Talent-esque chorus and some nice melodies, but when it veers off into a disco reggae bridge sung in Japanese (allegedly written using google translate) before exploding back into punk, all the reasons why I despised Native Construct come to the surface. It’s needless and irritating and it undermines so much of the band’s compositional merits. The rest of the album flirts with these moments, and they’re probably the only reason I can’t give this a higher score, but the band are walking a very fine line between gimmicky and fun, and the price for that is that I can only really appreciate parts of this album.
Composition aside, the group’s arrangements and eclecticism are something that everyone can appreciate. The horns, particularly trumpet, are as central to the band’s sound as guitar and drums, but thrown into the package is everything from ukelele to violin to saxophone, and the seamless integration of the range of timbres is commendable.
I’d definitely recommend Unsongs, but with several reservations. Check this out if you like ska punk of any form, don’t check this out if you find bands like Andrew Jackson Jihad or Streetlight Manifesto annoying. Check this out if you enjoy dancing to music, don’t check this out if pronounced Northern English accents annoy you. I can’t quite convince myself that I love this album because the band occasionally push my buttons a bit too much, but I know people who would certainly love this. A mixed album, but an interesting one nonetheless.