Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra – ‘II’

By Live4ever - Posted on 06 Feb 2013 at 7:24am

By the time the spring of 2010 rolled around, Ruban Nielson had already removed himself from the unsettling clamor of the award-winning New Zealand punk outfit the Mint Chicks in order to live a quiet and unassuming life as a graphic designer with his wife and kids in Portland, Oregon.

Flash forward nearly three years and that quiet and unassuming and decidedly non-musical life that Nielson once hoped to cultivate couldn’t be further from the truth. After cautiously creating a Bandcamp page to display a track that he recorded in his basement under the mysterious banner of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the would-be nine-to-fiver has since transformed his personal project into a live power trio, released a stellar self-titled debut for Fat Possum Records, locked himself into a rigorous international touring schedule, and signed on to indie juggernaut Jagjaguwar for a hotly anticipated follow-up.

That follow-up – bluntly titled ‘II‘ – easily lives up to the anticipation, taking the sun-baked psych-pop simplicity that defined the first record and twisting it just enough to add a previously missing layer of musical and emotional depth. If the debut was a hook-filled series of summery singalongs, then this one is its reflective, late night counterpart that replaces a reliance on catchy choruses with a bent towards stretched-out ruminations on loneliness and isolation.

Not to say that the hooks aren’t here, it’s just that they are woven right into the fabric of the song so much that they are sometimes hard to place. The childlike chant that drives opener ‘From The Sun‘ morphs and changes before eventually taking shape amidst a cycle of soft, finger-picking interludes, while single ‘Swim & Sleep (Like A Shark)‘ is one big verse and chorus mutated together by an infectious vocal melody and quirky guitar line. Then there is ‘So Good At Being In Trouble‘, which is an endearing snippet of blue-eyed soul that highlights Neilson’s damaged falsetto at its most hummable.

The subtle shift in direction becomes more apparent as the album progresses, with the thin slices of pop-inflected charm giving way to a spacious midsection that hints at the groove-rock experimentation of their stage show. ‘The Opposite Of Afternoon‘ begins with some playful Beatles-style phrasing that glides over Nielson’s understated yet intricate chord changes, and ‘Monki‘ is a seven minute lesson in subdued psychedelic funk.

Yet it is ‘No Need For A Leader‘ that best exemplifies this looser, long-winded approach. With its muted surf drumbeat, gently layered vocals, and open-road-to-the-cosmos breakdowns, this rollicking centerpiece could have been a classic rock radio staple in some off-kilter alternate universe.

In fact, this displaced aura is what preserves ‘II’ in the same sort of distorted time capsule as its predecessor. Like the last album, it abstracts the paisley vibes of the late 60s and filters it through a misremembered fog of vintage kitsch and modern nostalgia.

Mining the wreckage of the flower power peak for nuggets of inspiration is hardly a new hobby these days, but there is still something special about the way Nielson presents his discoveries as if he was sifting through a entirely different pile of rubble altogether.

(Beau De Lang)

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