The two members of Vancouver’s Ornament & Crime took their name from the title of an essay published in 1910 by Austrian architect Adolf Loos. This essay criticized the use of “ornament in art,” claiming that embellishing practical objects with decoration is pointless and foolish. After listening to Unbuilt, the impact of Loos on the music of Ornament & Crime becomes clear, as the most defining characteristic of this album is its minimalism.
The first half of Unbuilt is slow-paced garage rock. Tracks like “Academy of the Birds” and “Catch Your Death” consist of simple, dirty, bluesy guitar, bare-bones drum beats, basic vocal melodies, and a complete absence of bass. At times, these songs almost sound like an early Black Keys album, just slower and much, much more simple.
On the seventh track “Tin,” however, the album takes a sharp turn towards dark and unsettling art rock. Initially, songs like “Stickabrick City” and “Perspectiva” retain elements of conventionality. But as the album progresses, so does its experimental and disturbing atmosphere. This culminates in the final track on the album, “Blind Mice,” when Suzy King and Thomas Hudson sing a variation of “Three Blind Mice” with an ominous and violent tone, which manages to be both avant-garde and disconcerting.
Impressively, Unbuilt does not lose its minimal edge. Ornament & Crime manages to dive head-first into experimental while maintaining simplicity. For example, “Sawhorse” features Hudson dragging a pick across the strings of his guitar, but this moment of musical exploration occurs only within the repetitive strum of a single chord.
But while this album remains sonically minimal, its lyrics do not. Throughout the entirety of Unbuilt, King and Hudson explore complex themes including materialism and substance abuse. On “I Owe,” for instance, the lyrics criticize the hypocrisy of materialism within religion, declaring that “their God’s money.” The lyrical content of “Dizzy Uppers” describes using drugs as a means to lessen the mundanity of life, stating, “Thought I’d take the yolks out of my eggs / Well that didn’t help me at all / I took two pills in the p.m.”
Unbuilt illustrates Ornament & Crime’s loyalty to the principles of Loos. The instrumentation and vocals (disregarding their content) lack any element of unnecessary complexity. Yet, they masterfully form interesting, enjoyable, and moving songs that bridge two very different genres.