Here we have a selection of press reviews written about Unwed Sailor albums over the years.
The four-note piano figure repeats mesmerically as guitars slash out a series of rising power chords, all complex elements of Unwed Sailor’s post-rock sound held in rigorous, particular relation to one another. Little Wars, the band’s fifth record, opens with the clarity of clockwork, each note clear and burnished, every point and counterpoint carefully considered. And yet, for all the care and precision involved, there is an inescapable sense of joy here in “Copper Islands”, as the volume crests and falls and the various instruments enter and exit the song. Consider Unwed Sailor’s songs the ink-and-wash style of music, outlined meticulously, yet brought to life with exuberant blobs of color. Unwed Sailor is what Seattle's Johnathan Ford has been up to since leaving Pedro the Lion and Roadside Monument. Here, in recordings drawn from three sessions stretched over five years time, he brings together longtime collaborators Nic Tse and Matthew Putnam and like-minded fellow travelers Bryce Chambers and James McAllister from Ester Drang to realize his dreamy sonic landscapes. Geometrically precise yet warmly organic, serenely unperturbed but with a bubbling undercurrent of mirth, this is what might happen to post-rock if you put it in a warm corner of the garden and allowed it to grow.
-- Jennifer Kelly (April, 2008)
The White Ox & Circles
Having chased the perfect ambient post-rock album now for the last seven years, Unwed Sailor have grabbed for the brass ring in 2006, issuing their most comprehensive st datements to date. Pulled from the original sessions that produced The White Ox, the Circles EP makes for a sustained focus primer for that album's calculated sprawl. Split into two tracks, "Circles 1: Mist" and "Circles 2: Mesa," the band waste no time establishing a bombed out ambient groove, with the opener trailing through 11 minutes of guitar feedback, faint percussion, and shimmering atmospherics. When the drums of "Circles 2: Mesa" finally enter, they usher in an unexpected wash of U2-ish guitar jangle and mewing synths, breaking the inescapable hush of the previous track and providing an unexpected catharsis.
The White Ox begins no less subtly, with simple acoustic guitar lines giving way to factory drones, plucked strings, and crystalline patches of feedback. Most startling is the inclusion of vocals for the first time on an Unwed Sailor album, Johnathon Ford slipping unobtrusive and characteristically languid vocal melodies in amongst the solemn guitar lines and unhurried snare hits of "Gila" and using wordless chants to soften the solemnity of "Numbers". As The White Ox is darker and more melancholic than anything in the Unwed Sailor catalog, the vocals help put a human anchor on tracks that often seem so insubstantial as to nearly float away altogether. To their credit, the band proves that they have no fear of pushing their music to the minimalist extreme, and after a half-decade of exploring the process of orchestrating careful shifts in dynamics, making an album without any noticeable peaks and valleys is probably the most daring thing they could have done.
-- Matt Fink (Winter, 2007)
The White Ox
The Black and White
On the heels of the epic Circles EP, a 2-song project that was recorded during The White Ox sessions, and set aside as a companion to the full-length, the actual album (The White Ox) finds band founder Jonathan Ford at what might be his creative peak. With the help of longtime friend Dan Burton (Early Day Miners), whose basement studio birthed this fantastic album, Ford charts unknown musical waters. "Gila" finds Ford, for the first time...singing! Or at least kind of using his voice. The result is so morose and saddeningly beautiful. The soundscapes created in this post-rock venture dabble in the grandeur of Bark Psychosis, yet feel more scratched up and indie. Tender drones and ambient production absorbs soft melodies and intricate details. The counting towards the end of "Numbers" is genius in its composition, and the steady/crisp drum tones of "Night Diamond" transports you to a funeral filled with gorgeous ambience. Unbridled warmth permeates the acoustic sounds of "Pelican", and "The End" is an majestic and airy farewell. I wouldn't pass this LP up, as it is Jonathan Ford's finest work to date.
The White Ox
Being reminded of home comes at some of the most unexpected of times. Walking down the street and catching a whiff of pine around Christmas time, or even a discreet sniff of a wood-burning fire when the snow starts falling usually does the trick for me. Yet, it doesn’t have to be something that’s instantly familiar, as certain tones even give a feeling of regret or craving for the comforts of home. The music concocted by Johnathon Ford is instantly inviting, but it’s more akin to coming home to an abandoned house: recognisable, yet oddly eerie. Where instrumental numbers like "Shadows" and "Night Diamond" pluck and burn with an elegiac hug, "Gila" stirs up just enough menace to make sure you keep a healthy distance. Most important, things aren’t all slow dulcet notes, as "Numbers" even gets a little poppy, as Early Day Miners’ Dan Burton provides some catchy breaths as the song ups the tempo ever so slightly. But, to listen to this effort as a collection of singles is to miss Unwed Sailor’s power. It takes this whole album to realise that Ford and company have teased and plucked the heartstrings as easily as waiting relatives at the door after a long exodus. Welcome home.
-- Chris Whibbs (November 26, 2006)
This two-song, 16-minute EP is the first batch of new material for this eclectic, artsy ensemble. The first song entitled “Circles 1: Mist” is a slow and somewhat haunting piece that brings to mind a cross between Eno and Vangelis—very deliberate but very soothing at the same time. A guitar enters the rather mellow fray roughly six minutes in, giving it more of a Floydian interlude feeling which continues without many bumps or sways for the following five minutes. “Circles 2: Mesa” seems to pick up where the first track left off, although this one has an ambient hue to it as the percussions come to the fore, becoming an up-tempo tune by comparison. And the homestretch brings to mind U2 without Bono in the studio, a delightful and rather uplifting song that gently fades out.
One has to love the record label Burnt Toast. They put out impeccable releases from really interesting artists, giving them full freedom to explore their vision, without getting caught up in the record industry hype or the indie rock hipper-than-thou scene. And while they have certainly released some albums I don't care for, that is more my problem than theirs… and they make no apologies for the things they have done.
Unwed Sailor would probably never prospered as a band on any other label. Jonathan Ford (first mate of the Unwed Sailor group) and whoever his collaborators at the time are create an overly indulgent form of art rock, music that definitely wouldn't fly on a major label and with intricate packaging (see The Marionette and the Music Box book, for example) that would bankrupt smaller labels. Luckily for both parties, Unwed Sailor and Burnt Toast Vinyl found each other, and luckily for us too, because they have moved past
Circles is a definite step past the math-rock of their first full length The Faithful Anchor and the instrumental storytelling of The Marionette and the Music Box, "Circles 1 : Mist" begins with a slowly burning set of lazy guitar haze, punctuated with deep hand drum accents. Definitely a lot more world music inspired than the Euro-waltz of their last release or the Kentucky hardcore of their first releases, the second track ("Circles 2 : Mesa") builds quickly from this ambient-ness into a quick and active beat, again with the hand drum, but adding in shakers and scratchers and all sorts of rhythms to fill out the space previously occupied by the atmospheric guitar line. But don't fear, a fuzzy ebowed guitar returns fairly quickly into this five-minute track (half the length of the first piece), and carries into the hook melody, along with some beautifully smooth bass-playing
There you have it, Circles is two tracks, fifteen minutes of instrumental bliss. It is a definite (and welcome) change from the previously derivative sounds of Unwed Sailor's previous releases. And it hints at the true greatness of their upcoming full length, The White Ox, which promises to explore more of the same themes found here.
(May 26, 2006)
The Marionette and the Music Box
A few years ago, Unwed Sailor could be best described as a busy man's post-rock band. Bassist Johnathon Ford (erstwhile member of Pedro the Lion and Roadside Monument) and a revolving cast of bandmates made pleasant instrumental music without any distractions or frills. Their brand of faintly mathematical indie rock, best exemplified on 2001's The Faithful Anchor, called to mind domestic but foreign-sounding contemporaries like Tristeza and Maserati; it was idyllic, intricate, and wholly inoffensive.
Unwed Sailor's work is still just that, if not more so. But instead of struggling against post-rock's eternal little-more-than-background-music stigma, Ford et al seem to have embraced it in search of nobler avenues. And so, in keeping with the theme of collaboration seen in 2002's Stateless (a multimedia collaboration with the Early Day Miners and filmmaker Chris Bennett), The Marionette and the Music Box is not, officially speaking, just an album. Rather, it is the musical companion to a mini-storybook of the same name by artist Jamie Hunt in which seventeen tracks correspond to and caption seventeen paintings, which appear in narrative order in the CD booklet, telling the story of (yes) a marionette who finds a music box in the forest.
With that in mind, it's probably not a surprise that Marionette is not especially satisfying on its own. The majority of its tracks are under two minutes in length and consist of a brief theme repeated and minimally elaborated with softly layered guitars and interwoven chirps of synth, bells, accordions, and the like, all underscored dryly with primitive percussion; in fact, most of the time the music sounds closer to the more ambient half of the Album Leaf's One Day I'll Be On Time. However, the few extended songs, like the breezy "The Windmill's Tale of the Music Box Floats Through the Air. Riding the Windmill" or the lovely closing track "Jubilee," develop into increasingly charming pieces.
More importantly, when taken as part of a whole audiovisual experience, the virtue of Marionette's musical simplicity becomes apparent. As individual soundtracks to Hunt's lush, detailed storyboards, the tracks seem admirably restrained, gently guiding the tone of each picture without prevailing too heavily. The two sides never clash actively, but reach a sort of apex toward the end during "Lost and Alone" (the theme to when the marionette misplaces the music box, and not coincidentally the disc's longest track): it's not even that the song and the painting fit particularly well, but that the song's sinister, droning undertone puts Marionette in a new perspective, suggesting that the heretofore placid and pastoral mood really does serve the illustrations, and that a more assertive musical side would likely detract from the whole.
The paintings themselves are similar to the music in their pleasant consistency; without delving too deeply into artistic evaluation, it seems appropriate to say that Hunt's project depends just as much on Unwed Sailor's as vice versa (the actual storyline is fiendishly simple even for the smallest of children, but you can't have it all). Marionette works as well as you'd expect it to, and maybe even as well as it possibly could, resonating somewhere between the elegant versatility of Tchaikovsky's Peter and the Wolf and the enchantment of Chris van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Even if the images and sounds don't add up to so much by themselves, their subtlety and simplicity are praiseworthy, and the creativity with which they intertwine is one to which more artists – in every sense of the word – should aspire.
-- Daniel Levin Becker
The Marionette and the Music Box
Purely instrumental rock bands possess one clear disadvantage over their more conventional peers: It's difficult to connect with an audience without lyrical or vocal signifiers to convey emotion. Instead,groups like the subtly dazzling Unwed Sailor must generally rely on trickier, less obvious methods of audience manipulation, from tonal shifts to surges in momentum to subtle instrumental shading. That task is formidable enough, but on The Marionette and the Music Box, Unwed Sailor aims even higher, presenting its music as audio accompaniment to Jamie Hunt's short illustrated children'sbook, which is included in the album's liner notes. Appropriately, the song titles perform double-duty as captions: While it's hard to imagine "Behold! The Unicorn" being anything but parody or comical pretension, here the wonder it conveys effectively sets the stage for the meandering "The Distraction. A Conflict of Interest. Enchanted by the Unicorn." and the lovely, appropriately forlorn "The Separation. A Hopeless Pursuit." Though Unwed Sailor breaks The Marionette and the Music Box into 17 pieces to match Hunt's visuals, the set works even better as a free-flowing 38-minute piece, flowing seamlessly from emotion to emotion as its story dictates. Like Pinetop Seven without vocals or Godspeed You! Black Emperor without the catharsis of bruising release, the group conveys delicacy and grace whether oozing portent or simply finding and showing off a beautiful melody. And for all its conceptual weightiness and lofty artistic goals, it's sublime and endlessly rewarding as background music, too.
-- Stephen Thompson (June, 2003)
The Marionette and the Music Box
Before I, as a candid and loyal servant of the musically insatiate, etch in stone my clumsy wisdom, the Patron Saint of Objectivity prays I first make a confession: I don't generally get along with concept albums. My first reaction is typically one of disappointment filtered through indignity: Hey, don't tell me what to make of your music. F.Y.I., I happen to enjoy the tabula rasa privilege of formulating my own basis for analysis and drawing up my own, personal associations for your music. I want to be the judge of this, and I certainly don't want you to be the judge of how it is I should render my judgment. Then I grow up. Some.
The Marionette and the Music Box is, yes, a concept album about a damned marionette and a music box. How do I know this? Because I was cold-cocked in the face with it. Unwed Sailor created the album as a companion piece to Jamie Hunt's 17-plate illustrated children's book which spins the tale of our two protagonists and is included in the liner notes. The song titles double as captions to the plates, and feature such narrative-driven handles as "Meeting of the Marionette and the Music Box", "The Separation. A Hopeless Pursuit", and "The Return to Open Arms". You get the picture: all 17 of them. Which, truth be told, are a small accomplishment on their own right.
The music itself is a truncated version of previous Unwed Sailor material, which in turn was a truncated version of bassist Jonathan Ford's Roadside Monument material. Whereas earlier Unwed Sailor releases were dynamic, weaving mathy elements of guitar, bass, and drums into the sort of instrumental rock that's correctly served without lyrical accompaniment, The Marionette's formula isn't as replete. The band chose to forgo, for the first sixteen tracks, actual drumming in lieu of subtler, more softly textured percussion. Delicate guitar interplay, by turns warily ambitious and content in tone, is augmented by creaking doors, rhythmic tapping, sparse bells, organs, and chirping birds. The entire album, lacking a skeletal grounding, is light and wistful, and though it never soars it likewise never sinks.
None of the songs, save for the return-to-form closer "Jubilee", boldly stand out either in construction or accomplishment. It has its moments, but, as a testament to its cohesiveness, could veritably have been divided into one or two tracks-- and I get the feeling Jonathan and company might take umbrage to the idea of using any one cut for the purposes of, say, a mixtape. Singling out the gentle acoustics and perfect timbre of "At Peace in the Forest" is tantamount to removing your favorite minute from any Godspeed song. I suppose the heart of my concern is this: what the band could once construct emotionally in one song is spread thin over the course of 38 minutes, and inextricably reliant on the extra-musical elements for succeeding in its aims-- aims that, need I remind you, I did not dictate or unjustifiably fabricate.
Ultimately, I see the album as a moving away from one strength in favor of developing another. The stark, minimalist guitar work and overall atmosphere is simply a delight as background fare. While Unwed Sailor probably felt as if they were doing just the opposite, they chose to find a cure for a benign affliction, and in doing so temporarily abandoned the qualified (yet equally promising) success of earlier aspirations. Those of you reading this review in the distant future can feel free to subtract a few points from the rating for careless meddling if this turns out to have just been a pit stop, but if Unwed Sailor can break free from the fetters of accountability and move forward, all sins are forgiven. And that's where honesty will get you.
-- Bill Morris (August 28, 2003)
The Marionette and the Music Box
It's unfortunate that incidental music is often misjudged as something more than what it is intended to be. Background music is supposed to be passive, a tool used in scoring film, providing ambiance or, in the case of The Marionette and the Music Box, employed as accompaniment to an illustrated storybook. Sparse tonal guitars ring with restrained melody, cohabiting pockets of silence with various percussive and atmospheric electronic elements, to create the sonic backdrop for illustrator Jamie Hunt to set his story of friendship between the two title characters in motion. Beautifully packaged and art directed, it would be a disservice to both musician and artist if The Marionette and the Music Box wasn't reviewed for its merit as a piece of creative integrated media. Unfortunately it won't, and many will fault Unwed Sailor for contributing yet another seemingly derivative instrumental record of minimalist compositional guitar. I know it's the soundtrack for a kid's book and all, so excuse me when I say 'fuck 'em.' This is simply beautiful, cinematic scoring, drawing comparisons to the poetics of Gastr del Sol and the variable timbre of Bill Frisell or Pullman. Sombre, calming and, at times even ringing with the Gothic tones of medieval composition, it is nothing less than classical music for kids raised on Slint and Don Caballero, not Teletubbies and Raffi. I'm not sure how many 6-year-olds will cozy up with The Marionette and the Music Box, but I know that for us adults, there are times when we need our music to just shut up and be.
-- Steve Marchese (July, 2003)
The Faithful Anchor
Some of you might know/remember a band called Roadside Monument; Johnathon Ford provided the bass to that aggressive, indie-rock three piece. Since the fold of the band, Ford has moved on with his instrumental, post rock band Unwed Sailor. The band released an EP on the Made In Mexico label in 1999 called Firecracker. The album was noticed by critics, but kind of fell by the wayside with consumers. Now armed with a full length, it’s hard to pass up their refreshing take on the instrumental genre. Departing from the normal, “ohh, life is so dark I can’t even sing” sound of most post rock bands today, Unwed Sailor come at you with poppy beats that can get you through a day, rather than drag you down. To me, it sounds like a perfect driving CD… but during a change of seasons, either spring or fall. Maybe I’m being to arty, but it’s what I think about when I listen to the album. This might also sound cheesy, but the record plays like a soundtrack to a movie that hasn’t been filmed yet. If you own the first EP will notice a new version of “Ruby’s Wishes”, well, more or less a new recording with a slightly altered drum beat. You will also notice the bands first “vocal” track. “The Quiet Hour” is the last cut on the record, a tenderly sung song in the vein of newer Shipping News. It’s kind of nice to have the bands first sung recording as the last thing you hear, it makes you wonder where the band is going next, and leaves you wanting more. Fans of Tortoise and Dianogah will eat this up, get it and impress your friends with your music-sniffing prowess.