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.
Thought on Tracks favorites Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO) announced the plans for their sophomore LP today. The release will be the band’s first on Bloomington, IN label JagJaguwar. The release is titled simply: //. Yes, a double backslash. The release comes on the back of UMO’s debut, self-titled LP. Check out the track listing below and listen to the debut single “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark).” // drops on February 5.
01 From the Sun
02 Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)
03 So Good at Being in Trouble
04 One at a Time
05 The Opposite of Afternoon
06 No Need for a Leader
09 Faded in the Morning
10 Secret Xtians
Even after jazz at the Chatterbox (the perfect post-show bar by the way), a night of sleep, and a morning of reflection, my mind is still blown by Bon Iver’s performance last night. With that being said, please be patient while I attempt to gather my thoughts and articulately portray my magical evening.
After an incredible performance by The Rosebuds, Bon Iver took the stage and opened with a stunning rendition of “Perth.” This song was only the beginning of the emotional story Justin Vernon would tell throughout the duration of the night. For every song, you see, was part of this bigger picture…this beautiful journey we all took part in on a Monday night at the Murat. As I’m looking at the set list now I’m wishing I could write a paragraph about each song and how it so intricately fit into Vernon’s mind map of music and words. “Calgary” nearly brought me to tears, “Blood Bank” was epic, and don’t even get me started on the acoustic “Skinny Love” or the Bjork cover, “Who is it?”
This concert was more than a 10 piece band on a stage, it was an experience. Although all were spectacular, my favorite part of the night was not the perfect and meticulous lighting, the thought provoking lyrics, or the life changing harmonies. My favorite part of the evening was the relationship between Bon Iver and Indianapolis.
Throughout his performance he complimented the crowd on our attentive yet interactive behavior. Now of course this is fairly typical for any musician trying to build a connection with the audience; however, there was something very different about this night, this concert, this crowd. Indianapolis was alive and there was no denying it. As we all anxiously joined in to clap to the beat there was a feeling of solidarity I had never felt before—Bon Iver had never felt before. It became very apparent that the band not only recognized this solidarity but was humbled by it. Vernon even stated, “You’re on your feet. That’s insane. You’re working hard.”
Once the encore was complete the band just stood there for a few minutes, genuinely impressed with the enthusiasm and spirit of Indianapolis. As we cheered and watched Bon Iver take it all in, I noticed they were staring back at us in awe. It was a mutual exchange of love and respect. They knew we fell in love with the show…their music…their chemistry. We knew they fell in love with us as an audience…a being…a city. What a monumental love story.
For one of the first times, Indianapolis had made a true and honest mark on a band’s national tour and that feeling was more than palpable.
As someone who has been fighting for musicians like Bon Iver to visit Indianapolis for years, last night was more than a victory, it was a moment of pure pride. Groups like My Old Kentucky Blog (MOKB) and IndyConcerts have worked their tails off to make Indianapolis a known stop on any band’s tour and well, I tip my hat to you guys. You not only got them here but you proved it was well worth their while.
This realization comes at a very interesting time for me…as I will be moving to Portland, OR in just a few short weeks. While I’m going to miss nearly everything about the city I’ve called home for 25 years, I feel last night gave me the reassurance to know its okay to leave. Of course I will never believe my work in music is complete, but now Indianapolis has shown me there at least 2,300 people with the same goal in mind.
I couldn’t be more thrilled and excited for you, Indianapolis music fans. This is your time! With bands like The Head and the Heart, Yuck, ands Cults coming through Indianapolis, I find myself saying something I never thought I would—“I’m going to miss so many good shows in Indianapolis after I move to Portland.” I know Portland will have an amazing music scene but this is just different. We worked for this. We earned this and we deserve this.
Written and experienced by Laura Ferguson
This story was also featured on IndyConcerts.com