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Unwed Sailor - The Marionette and the Music Box

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Artist: Unwed Sailor

Album: The Marionette and the Music Box

Label: Burnt Toast Vinyl

Review date: Jan. 27, 2004


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.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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