Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra's II
The nationally emerging Portland trio's new album offers well-studied and finely crafted—if not inventive—psych-pop.
If you didn’t recognize the name Unknown Mortal Orchestra from the marquees of Portland venues or the pages of local publications, you’d be forgiven: although UMO is technically a local band, the psych-pop trio basically skipped the local stage of its career. In 2010, front man Ruban Nielson, of defunct Portland–via–New Zealand band the Mint Chicks, posted a single catchy track on his anonymous Bandcamp page. Days later, tastemaking site Pitchfork was streaming the track and Nielson found himself in a buzz band. He scored a record deal for UMO’s 2011 self-titled debut, recruited bandmates, and toured the world. It’s a weird new music world we live in.
Not that Unknown Mortal Orchestra didn’t deserve the hype. The group’s pop psychedelia was great fun to listen to, demonstrating Nielson’s mastery of songcraft and capturing the particular quality of psych-era production. As its title suggests, II, the highly anticipated follow-up UMO releases February 5, picks up where the band’s debut left off. Here there are straight psych-rock songs such as “Faded in the Morning,” with its processed guitar and trippy laughing-children sound effects. There are songs, like “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark),” on which the band’s psych edge softens to a ‘60s-pop-reminiscent sound; as Nielson sings—“I wish that I could swim and sleep like a shark does / I’d fall to the bottom / And I’d hide ‘til the end of time / In that sweet, cool darkness”—we’re looking up from the bottom of a swimming pool to a soundtrack not so unlike Simon & Garfunkel, enwombed in the fragile, dusty guitar and vocals. Several tracks find the band in one of its soul moods—as on album closer “Secret Xtians,” where Nielson swings his singing to a funky, sauntering rhythm. And across all its tracks, II sounds, unlike most modern recordings, like it was, well, recorded: the insulated walls of a studio are a sonic presence on the album, and that sound is musical comfort food.
The question which must be asked of any band that looks backward for inspiration is: does it also look forward? Does it deconstruct and make anew? For UMO, the answer must be: not really. In fact, whereas the group’s self-titled album featured some experimentation (see: the processed-out-of-this-world, punkish “Nerve Damage”), II is more of a period piece. For inventive, of-the-moment music, look elsewhere. But for ear candy, finely crafted and well-studied, II is your confectionary.
Watch the video for "So Good at Being in Trouble":