When Unrest disbanded at what I considered to be the height of its powers in 1994, my college radio-infused world was devastated. Unrest was my favorite band at the time, simply because its wildly erratic yet highly collectible records mimicked what I thought made college radio so interesting and intriguing and vital. The abrupt mood shifts, random non-sequiturs, and brazen avant-silliness were all packaged in a DIY shell with a dark, sardonic undercurrent (and, of course, exquisite design). You couldn’t pin that band down. Granted, its final two albums veered sharply in a clean, clinical direction, but the sum of its years and dizzying musical styles were always at bay, especially in a live setting.
Post-Unrest, Mark Robinson has become even more of an enigma. The man behind Teenbeat Records, Unrest, Air Miami, Flin Flon, and now Cotton Candy (just to name a few) has remained on the fringe of the musical underground for decades. With Unrest’s unwieldy trajectory, Robinson almost punctured that elusive commercial domain, but I always felt like the taste of the edge of success never sat well with him. And the subsequent solo albums and brief band dalliances pushed him further and further into very specific experimental realms.
And now with Cotton Candy, a duo featuring Blast Off Country Style’s Evelyn Hurley, Robinson has just barely cracked the door back open to the glistening pop world that Unrest dabbled with on those splendid final albums and singles. His affection for jangly pop has never been in question, nor has his ear for catchy, rhythmically dynamic yet unorthodox progressions. But Cotton Candy is heavier on ideas than it is songs. There are snippets of brilliance, as on the title track, which sounds like a sped up version of one of Unrest’s Imperial-era gems, but the album is cut with so many conceptual snippets of camp and fodder that it feels like Robinson is trying to keep his audience at arm’s length.
Top Notch & First Rate does little to unravel the mystery behind Robinson’s musical motives, but it’s a cleverly executed record full of self-referential minutiae and pop culture satire with glimpses of his pop genius. When Robinson melds the schtick with substance as on album-highlight “Hot Wieners (All the Way)”, Cotton Candy’s place in the musical pantheon makes more sense. If only Top Notch & First Rate balanced the artful diversions with more of the hook-laden pop, then Cotton Candy might amount to more than beautifully packaged and brilliantly presented fluff.