Uknown Mortal Orchestra-ll
It took about six months. I’d owned Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s self-titled debut six months before those gritty, murkily produced sonic nuggets wormed their way into my brain and have remained since. Sure, ‘Thought Ballune’, ‘FFunny FFriends’ and ‘How Can U Luv Me’ were instantly likeable, and made there way onto a few mixes. But tracks like ‘Nerve Damage!’, ‘Little Blu House’, and ‘Strangers Are Strange’ took more time. They needed to sit in the brine a bit longer before their full flavor could be appreciated. But once their lo-fi beauty blossomed they became staples of my musical diet. So last fall when I heard ‘Swim and Sleep(Like a Shark)’ I felt this new UMO record could be one of the best of 2013.
“Isolation can put a gun in your hand” is the first thing that comes out of Ruban Nielson’s mouth on ll, and that sets the mood for this sophomore release that doesn’t suffer from any sort of slump. You get the feeling, both in his music and interviews, that Nielson wades in solitudes dark waters often. It seems to be part of his process. Without that element of loneliness UMO wouldn’t be UMO. “I’m so lonely, but I can never quite reach the phone” Nielson admits later on. The isolation allows this artist to create the way he creates. I’m sure this isn’t the healthiest way to exist, but some of the best artists live a life of solitude so they can hear the voices clearly that resonate in their heads. ‘Swim and Sleep(Like a Shark)’ echos that sentiment to the extreme. “I’d fall to the bottom, and hide till the end of time” he sings before the refrain “that sweet, cold darkness”. Is it a cry for help, or just a desire to be left alone in the quiet buzz of a studio, contemplating the end. Of what? The song? The album? Life? Maybe all three. Regardless, it’s a melancholy trip that hints at the absolute greatness Ruban Nielson carries in his soul. ‘So Good At Being In Trouble’ is a soulful R&B number that Al Green or Curtis Mayfield could’ve made into a soul staple back in the 70s. UMO hinted at this sort of groove on their last album, but here Nielson jumps in head first. He’s created a genre unto itself: indie psych soul. ‘One At A Time’ is an all out rocker, with a Dr. Q Envelope Filter giving the guitar that “quacking” funk noise and a chorus straight out of Arena Rock: 101. If they ever play an arena, this one will rock the joint for sure. ‘The Opposite of Afternoon’, ‘No Need For A Leader’ and ‘Monki’ are the centerpiece tracks and the longest songs, making up close to half the album’s run time. I find this move kind of bold. All three signficantly different. ‘The Opposite of Afternoon’ a folksy number with some of Nielson’s impressive guitar work. ‘No Need For A Leader’ is a stranger beast, with a go-go beat, processed vocals, and guitars that sound like they were recorded under water. Finally ‘Monki’ is seven minutes of dark vibes, studio magic, and an undercurrent of dread. Delayed guitars give the feel of things that go bump in the night, until the chorus comes in with a groovy guitar riff and Nielson’s inner soul man shines. I feel with time these three tracks will become the highlight on an album filled with highlights. The short instrumental ‘Dawn’ takes us into ‘Faded In The Morning’ and a sunny end with ‘Secret Xtians’.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Ruban Nielson continue the trend of solid songwriting. His murky production continues to reign supreme, yet the songwriting has reached a much higher plateau. Here’s hoping Nielson can find his way out of that sweet, cold darkness. Or at least find some contentment as he feels his way through.
8 out of 10