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On the horn 

Canada's Unicorns pop open a musical spectacle

Being a mythical creature has certain advantages. You get to fraternize with an interesting cast of characters. You can cast spells, grant wishes, turn invisible and play elaborate pranks. But when you must abandon your van because an oil leak has destroyed the engine after only one date of your American tour, it takes more than magic to keep going. It takes a good sense of humor.

"I don't know if it's because we're mythical beasts, or because we're Canadian, but we definitely don't take ourselves too seriously," says Jaime Tambeur of British Columbia-bred, Montreal-based glazed-pop trio the Unicorns. "We take making music and putting on a show seriously enough, but not ourselves. Good comedy comes from pain, from hardship. And Canada is a cold, barren wasteland, so to get by in isolation without going crazy involves making fun of everything. We've certainly needed a good laugh already this tour."

Formed by multi-instrumentalists Nicholas "Niel" Diamonds and Alden Ginger, the Unicorns have from the start attempted to entertain with a morbid but lighthearted aesthetic. It's a simple enough formula, says Diamonds in a manner reminiscent of a traveling medicine-show salesman.

"For good pop, you gotta carbonate water and add flavor, a syrup of some kind. It's pretty simple," he says of the band's stage show. "We've been at this for five months seriously and I think we've got the perfect pop. From town to town, we're still working from the same recipe, but we can add little spices, gauge how the audience reacts to the taste test."

Bottled, the product is known as Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?, the Unicorns' first album. Effervescent with ghostly artifacts, the Unicorns' pop gets a good shaking and bubbles over with fuzzy, bouncy bass, warbling keyboards and flickering guitars. The band's lo-fi lollops across countless kiddy instruments, with melodies that go from lullabies to rollicking, to jarring motifs about colonialism, mortality and massaging the prostate gland. Fans of the naif psychedelica of the Flaming Lips, the Shins, Ween and Neutral Milk Hotel will find themselves entranced.

For the Unicorns, the resources to produce the product have gone from home four-tracking -- essentially, bottling out of a bathtub -- to studio fidelity, a "factory complete with conveyor belts and big switches," as Diamonds puts it. But the band's appeal has not changed. There's still a candid whimsy, a sense that the songs never feel quite finished, that you're hearing a friend's catchy demo.

Live, all the pixie dust, fizzy bubbles and whatever other confections the Unicorns concoct on the spot react and interact with each other in ways that can be as mystical as a fairy tale.

"We try to keep it fresh," Diamonds says. "To prevent it from going flat, we make sure the audience knows we notice them."

"We just try and not have too linear a show," Tambeur says. "We don't just get up, play shows and go home. Some stuff we plan, but mostly we leave opportunities for spontaneous things to happen, where the audience doesn't know if it was planned or not.

"Like at a recent show in Montreal, it was way more people than should legally be there -- people dancing up against and on the stage. And at one point, the power was just being pushed too hard and went off during this drum breakdown. So we continued playing, passing out percussion instruments to the audience until the power came back on, and we finished the song. People thought it was great and nobody could figure out if it was planned or not. We certainly weren't telling."

Shows like that could certainly maintain a band's reputation as mythical creatures. If the Unicorns can keep the show on the road, there's a good chance the trio will end up with a well-deserved last laugh.

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