Written By: Tonya Ballman
The Skiing//Mother of the Unicorn EP combines warm, steady acoustic grooves with 1960s and 70s-reminiscent production to create an album that’s both deliciously vintage and mesmerizingly original. Released in October of 2016, the work radiates with the earthy vibe of early autumn. It’s self-assured, but not over-confident; complete, but not over-polished.
The first song, More Light, is dedicated to Karl Hagemeister, an early 20th century artist whose work makes up the album cover. His chilly, surreal style is captured beautifully within the track, which features Joe Kelly’s easy baritone vocals drifting over repetitive, layered instrumentals. The drum and bass groove is relentless. Each section brings aboard a new instrument or melodic line, continually layering in more detail throughout the piece. The result is a steadily building, hypnotically charged song that doesn’t release the listener from its grip until the final chord trails into the distance.
The edgier groove at the top of track two cuts through the reverie left behind by More Light. Blue and Green features unexpected time changes that guide the listener back and forth between a quick, percussive, rhythm section beat and a drifting, psychedelic half-time. Smoothly vocal harmonies enhance the texture of these transitions.
It seems like this piece is less centered around a concrete theme than it is around certain emotions- melancholy, nostalgia, a longing for home. Everett Darling’s wistful lyrical content drifts over the subjects of darkness, nature, and time. These topics could easily fall into melodrama, but Darling’s managed to convey them in a comfortable, matter-of-fact tone that leaves the listener feeling both uneasy and soothed at the same time.
Track 3, Saturday, is more lighthearted than the first two. It’s a simple and sweetly composed lovesong by another songwriter, Little Wings. The lyrics suggest a patient longing for their subject and again, I feel a breezy tone reminiscent of a sunny fall day. Sparkling piano lines combine with gentle accordion and doubled vocals to create a new texture for the album, but the overall thread of emotion from the previous songs remains strong here.
The album concludes with Skiing//Mother of the Unicorn’s take on the Steely Dan classic, Reeling in the Years. Placing a cover from a band as widely-respected as S.D. in the final slot on the EP was a bold move, and opened the door to comparison between the groups. I feel that when a band does a cover, there are two different options: performing it precisely the same way as the original or putting a wildly different spin on it. The recording on this album ended up in the gray area between those two. While the feel is a little different from Steely Dan’s and fits in with the rest of this album, the tempo, riffs, and ideas remain the same. The overall result is a slightly lower-energy, looser version of the S.D. hit. However, as a standalone song not compared to the original, this piece does work. I give props for choosing a song that lyrically fits in with the rest of the album and for creating a solid version of it to close the E.P.
I’d never heard of either of these groups before completing this review, but I’ll be watching out for their work in the future. Not only did Skiing and Mother of the Unicorn work together beautifully here, they also have undeniable talent as individuals. I loved listening to this album. Check it out if you’re into relatable emotional content, textural complexity, and tasteful instrumental grooves. (In other words, good music.)