Album Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra ‘II’
Unknown Mortal Orchestra waltzed on the national stage from anonymity in 2011 to release one of the year’s most critically acclaimed albums. As Scott McDonald wrote for Aquarium Drunkard at the time, “every sound falls right out of the sky.” In 2011, critics spent more time discussing the shroud of mystery that cloaked the Portland trio of Ruban Nielson, Jacob Portrait and Gregory Rogove than they did wrestling with the sounds that made the act so compelling. Those that addressed the album itself spoke mostly of its cohesive, hook-driven aesthetic and the band’s effective use of distortion and reverb to create a sound that was simultaneously fresh and nostalgic.
Fast forward a couple of years to the release of their second album II, and UMO is no longer a stranger. Critics will replace the “who are these guys?” storyline with a shallow narrative that revolves around UMO avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump and, against all odds, hitting back-to-back home runs. All of this is true, but fails to address the main point: UMO has enhanced and developed the blueprint laid out on the band’s self-titled LP to create an album deserving of the “instant classic” tag, based on the merits of the music alone.
II kicks off with “From the Sun” a track likely in the bag long before the Sandy Hook shootings that have sparked a discourse over gun safety and mental illness in recent weeks. Nevertheless, the song feels ripped from the headlines with Nielson crooning, “Isolation can put a gun in your hand / it can put a gun in your hand / it can put again in your hand / If you need to, you can get away from the sun / you can get away from the sun / you can get away from the sun / If you need to, you can get away from the sun / If you need to, you can throw away the only one” The guitar prickles and floats around a swampy march on rhythms. You don’t need a degree in English Lit. to infer the “sun” as light/hope and “the one” as the One, or God. It’s a distorted dream of a track that places the listener in the isolated, hopeless shoes of the dejected.
Though II lacks nothing, it’s similar to The Beatles’ Revolver in that it seemingly starts and finishes in the blink of an eye. UMO crams a broad range of styles and textures into 10 tracks that span just more than 40 minutes. It features the funkadelic backbone of “One At a Time,” the classic R&B of “So Good at Being in Trouble,” the electro-infused tangent of “Dawn” and the tongue-in-cheek frivolity of “Secret Xtians.” On II‘s first single “Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark)” Neilson returns to the Motzartesque guitar riffs that worked so effectively on “Jello and Juggernauts” from the debut.
For me, the action peaks on “No Need For A Leader,” the lead-off track to II‘s b-side. Portrait walks out one of the most irresistible bass lines in recent memory. Nielson’s vocals drip with echo, omnipresent yet never overbearing. He pairs them with a jangly, spaced-out riff on guitar that feels ripped from the less flashy nether-regions of a familiar but unnamable 1970s arena rock anthem. Somewhere near Portland, a seething Richard Swift is cursing Ophelia for giving away this song before he could write the follow-up to Walt Wolfman.
“Faded in the Morning” is arguably the closest that UMO comes to recreating a piece of the debut. Nielson’s voice bounces, in lockstep with an understated melody on guitar. It’s reminiscent of “Ffunny Ffriends,” but the production is so much crisper – the vision more focused. UMO has taken a giant leap forward on II while managing to remain true to the band’s initial sound.
UMO teamed with Bloomington, IN label Jagjaguwar for the release of II. Having recently achieved gold status for Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago and self-titled LPs, Jagjaguwar has the street cred of an indie label with the distribution and experience to handle a major release. This appears a necessary step for UMO, given the radio-ready feel of tracks like “One At a Time.” II has the accessibility and addictive hooks to attract a wider, younger audience with the depth to appease even the fussiest critics. McDonald was right, it does feel like these songs are falling out of the sky. This time around, it has nothing to do with the anonymity of those responsible and everything to do with the strength of the work they just laid down.