These Things Take Time: Tunabunny & Minima Moralia

Nothing Tunabunny does is accidental.

I’ve listened to the group’s new album, Minima Moralia, for  the past month and started this review at least half a dozen times. I’ve embraced it as a new classic and, metaphorically at least, ripped it from the turntable and smashed it against the wall. I think I’ve come to the point now where I can just accept it for what it is: a document of guarded secrets, plagued with self-doubt but holding its own and wrapped in smirking half laughs. It’s an uncrackable mountain covered in detour signs. Attempting to engage it on any common terms is like trying to look backward through one-way glass. It begs to be taken seriously yet violently thwarts every effort by its own pushmi-pullyu personality that screams TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY!/I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE TAKING THIS SERIOUSLY!

The danger in taking any work of art seriously, in attributing depth and meaning, is that you’ll find there’s nothing there. But that’s not 100% the case with Tunabunny. There is a there there. Whatever meaning is found, that is to say whatever meaning one can take away from it, is of one’s own creation. They’re never going to tell you what they mean. They’ll name their album Minima Moralia –literally meaning “little moral” or “cheap ethics”–after Adorno’s book (which was telling subtitled “Reflections From Damaged Life”) which not only grants them automatic association by dictum but a way of making a joke that purposely conceals, perhaps, the underlying sentiment. They’ll take promo photos with a member holding up a copy of Kathy Acker‘s rewritten,but still pretty similar, Don Quioxte. A similar shot was taken with Bolaño‘s The Romantic Dogs, although it merely lies on the table and is not gripped such that it masks the member’s face.

They will do everything in their power to outwardly express that their demons are unimportant or, at worst, imaginary. Nearly every single thing about the way Tunabunny places itself in the public sphere is a self-balancing stance covered in defensive wounds.

In the scheme it matters most that Tunabunny created this record and much less whether anyone gets it because art doesn’t have to explain itself and engagement doesn’t necessarily mean interaction.

Functionally, the band has always pushed through its lack of traditional dexterity (i.e. a nearly total absence of cataloged rock cliches) and used off kilter chords, single note riffs, noise, screeching, et al. This comes to a head on Minima Moralia where Tunabunny demonstrates that it’s learned (or, at least, accepted) enough of the common language to create a pop record somewhat in the vein of post-post-punk/never-punk. This is especially present on the relatively sing-songy “Perfect Time, Every Time” and The B-52’s-colored “Subterranean.” There’s a clearly missed note in the first bars of “Happy Song” and, since none of this was recorded to super-expensive tape, it’s obvious it was left there intentionally. Tunabunny doesn’t unlearn itself; It adds to itself. The one-sheet (industry garble for the piece of paper that introduces a record to reviewers) says “[Minima Moralia] signals a Tunabunny that is more pop, yet more intense; more accessible, yet more desperate; more comforting, and yet more uncomfortable.” God damn if that’s not one sentence that any other band would like to use truthfully.

The one-sheet ends by saying, “On last year’s debut album, Tunabunny was out to destroy rock music. With Minima Moralia, they intend to redeem it. And with their third album, already in progress, and due sometime in 2012, they are planning to go beyond it.” Really? So, in the past Tunabunny was Throbbing Gristle and now the band is Springsteen? Next they’ll be, what, Emerson, Lake and Palmer? Let’s ignore that last possibility for now and concentrate on the first two. As hyperbolic as it sounds, they’re not really that far off the mark. But Minima Moralia isn’t Born To Run; It’s Born To Run Away. The sketches  it presents are horrifying in their lack of detail, like stark photographs that have no discernible subject and no center. They are diary entries that are too real to bring into full clarity. (Note: not everything on Minima Moralia is this way. “(Song For) My Solar Sister” seems less a vehicle for lyrics than for the music itself which hinges on a superb guitar riff worthy of The Feelies or The Reivers. They also made a party-scene video for it which helps lighten the mood further. “Killer of Sheep” is a pretty straightforward 1990’s-ish ALT-ROCK retelling of Charles Burnett ‘s film.“Cross Wire Technique” sounds like a lost demo by 1997-era U2. I mean that as a compliment but am pretty sure Tunabunny won’t take it that way.)

Those examples aside, though, leave an album full of anxiety.

The alternately soft-spoken and shrieking “Only At Night” (“I saw you there/Waiting at night, waiting at night/Never in light,only at night/… History was written by instigators/When will they do right?/Never in the daylight”) creeps through the skin while “Happy Song” warns (“I bet you’ve seen something like this before/And if not, well I hate to say you probably will” just after promising “Relax it’s not OK/but it’s going to be.” The warning comes after reassurance. It’s like someone who says “I’ll always love you as long as you________.” “The Natural World” says “We focus on steps that we take /Turn our attention from modern humanity…/Swallowed up by diluvium /And these are the steps we will take/And it will be just as we like it /Our time is a relative state.” Modern life is rubbish, indeed. Except, that’s not exactly what they’re saying. It’s modern humanity that’s been flooded and left under diluvium. Its deformity is such that to abandon it is no longer an aberration— a breaking of the social contract– but part of the natural world.

There are hints of jokes. “I will write our names in The Book of The Dead” ((Song For) My Solar Sister”) is most notable because to do such would mean, basically, vandalism. Mostly, though, Minima Moralia hangs in the air and swats at itself. It twitches and writhes.

While Tunabunny may be entertain-ing this is, significantly, not entertainment. The former is listener dependent; the latter requires the initiative of the artist. That they’ve been able to distill all the internal horror mentioned above into something so typical as a rock band says more about the strength of the form than anything else. And Tunabunny have certainly made the concessions one expects (videos, touring, multiple releases) but, even with these tools in hand Tunabunny appears to be less a case of going-through-the-motions and more one of these-motions-have-meaning. Activity is action and action cannot brood. Born To Run Away. (see: the video for “Only At Night.”)

Minima Moralia is free of sentiment, community, glad-handing, acceptance and relief. It postures only to form a stance with which to keep itself upright. It’s only intended audience is the band itself. It is carefully considered and completely self-conscious. It is bravely aware of its own skin and falls just short of being repulsed. Most of all it is deliberate and has an overwhelming sense of necessity about it.

It is the most complete artistic accomplishment of any Athens band this year and a stunning achievement by any honest measure.

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