“When someone hears Unwed Sailor, I want them to be able to reflect in their mind…To reflect on things they’ve been through, beautiful places they’ve been and experiences that have shaped them. I want their lives to be reflected in the songs.” – Johnathon Ford (Unwed Sailor)
Unwed Sailor are something of an enigma, flying largely under the radar (at least in the UK) for most of their twenty year career. Formed in late nineties Seattle but now based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, they are essentially an instrumental post-rock collective, centred around bass player Johnathon Ford, bringing his musical visions to fruition.
Far from creating disjointed results, as can often occur with fluid line-ups, Ford has managed to forge a cohesive and engaging sound, steering the band through some minor stylistic shifts over the years, but never dropping the ball or losing the magic of their distinctive sound. A former member of math rock band, Roadside Monument, it was while subsequently playing in the less intense Pedro The Lion that he began to hatch plans for forming an instrumental band to accommodate his new musical ideas and was galvanised into action after seeing Physics perform, the experimental and Kosmische influenced instrumental band from San Diego.
The newly formed Unwed Sailor soon released their debut EP, ‘Firecracker,’ in 1998, a thrilling four track affair on impossibly heavyweight 7” red vinyl, full of musical invention and surprise. It also contained the magnificent, crepuscular, ‘Once In A Blue Moon.’ a dense piece of music conjuring up images of late Autumn afternoons spent surveying bleak rainswept country terrains from a car window, Melissa Palladino’s lonely violin evoking the mood of the coda of Microdisney’s ‘Pink Skinned Man’.
‘The Faithful Anchor,’ their debut album recorded two years later in late 2000, maintained all the musical elements that had impressed on the EP but only Ford remained from the EP line up. This time around, he was joined by members of Early Day Miners (with whom Unwed Sailor would later collaborate), whilst former Roadside Monument bandmate Matt Johnson played drums and Nic Tse also featured on guitar. Despite the change of personnel, there is a seamless transition from the EP to the album.
Where the EP had finished on an Autumnal note, the album seems to herald a new season and opens confidently with a salvo of optimistic tracks which set the tone for much of what is to follow. ‘Last Goodbyes’ sounds like the Spring sun breaking through the rain clouds, suggesting that the titular farewell was not an altogether unwelcome one. Guitar and bass melodies intertwine conversationally in a way that recalls the dynamics of the angular bass and guitar interplay of the ‘Send Me A Lullaby’ era Go-Betweens. Matt Johnson is no shrinking violet either throughout the album and the drums are also well to the fore, free of the usual rock clichés and a stand out element in their own right, much in the same way that the beats of Stephen Morris were so central to Joy Division’s sound. Continuing the Antipodean vibe, ‘The House of Hopes…Dreams…and Wishes…’ kicks off like a sped up and more cheery cousin of The Moodists’ ‘Runaway’ before giving way to soaring layers of gorgeous guitar.
The album is punctuated at key points by two much slower tracks, which reveal another side to the band. “Our Nights” is a sprawling, lush soundscape that brings Ford’s love of soundtracks to the fore, building into a pensive bass and guitar meditation with minimal percussion. Later on, the briefer, ambient ‘In The Presence Of Thorns’ appears like a shimmering heat haze on a long straight road.
Ford cites influences as diverse as Tortoise and The Smiths and speaking to the Pop Matters website in 2019 stated “I’ve always focused more on a verse-chorus-bridge kind of structure. To my brain, it’s like a New Order song without vocals”. There is certainly a sense of this type of song structure across much of the album, although the New Order influence isn’t overt. ‘Golden Cities’ is so laden with hooks (not that one) throughout its two distinct sections, that it’s a wonder they resisted the temptation set up the mic, given that they relented on the closing track – Johnathon Ford materialising two minutes into the piece with the album’s only vocal. The latter incidentally comes as a bit of a ‘footprint in the sand’ moment on first hearing, having spent the preceding thirty or so minutes in a kind of meditative state, comfortable in the misapprehension that you were alone with your thoughts.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a band whose music is so visual, Unwed Sailor would go on to record a soundtrack album entitled ‘Stateless’ (in collaboration with Early Day Miners). They would then further experiment with different sounds and instrumentation on two subsequent albums before returning to a sound more rooted in rock with their ‘Little Wars’ album in 2008 and more recently, 2019’s ‘Heavy Age.’
‘The Faithful Anchor’ though, sounds as fresh today as it did on release. Lush, melodic and inventive, with robust, melodic basslines, guitars that are ‘vivid and in (their) prime’ and superb drumming throughout.
– Jonathan Griffin
Unwed Sailor official website : https://unwedsailor.net/
Unwed Sailor official Bandcamp page : https://unwedsailor.bandcamp.com/music