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.
I’m not entirely sure how this one passed me by a few weeks ago, but better late than never, right? Personal favorites of mine, Portland’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra are currently touring with a so-so band called Grizzly Bear (kidding!). Oh yeah, they just happen to be rolling through Cincinnati this Friday night at the MidPoint Music Festival which the Thought On Tracks team will be uniting together to attend. Rumored to be putting together their sophomore effort after their still rotation-worthy self-titled debut last year, the band is releasing “Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark)” via a limited edition, tour-only 7”. Scope the track below via the YouTube (Sorry, Iran! Not for you!).
Written by Greg Dahman
Portland trio, Blouse released their dark electro-pop ridden, self-titled debut late in 2011. While this release did not spread much further than the borders of the Pacific Northwest, I would expect them to acquire many new converts as they prepare themselves for a larger stage this year. The first audition will take place as Blouse heads down to Austin for SXSW. This will provide them with the proper platform to introduce many new listeners to their glowing gloom. I would not be shocked to see Blouse use SXSW to catapult themselves into many of your playlists much like Yuck was able to accomplish last year. I notice an undeniable attractive quality as I listen to each track on their release. Blouse will see success this year because of their intangible talent and commitment to their authenticity. I am confident in any band’s success when I notice these two important qualities from the beginning.
It should be noted that Unknown Mortal Orchestra bassist, Jacob Portrait moonlights in this project. As he travels from one start-up to the next, his “never sleep” attitude is appreciated by buzz band connoisseurs like myself. The combination of Portrait’s technical excellence combined with the dark tones of Charlie Hilton’s voice makes a formidable pairing. Track, “Videotapes” does the best job of displaying Blouse’s potential. Rich synths, deep bass, and a voice that sounds like it is coming from a shadow make “Videotapes” special and give Blouse a great deliverable for conversion. While it is not as friendly of an introduction as UMO’s “Ffunny Frends” it invites in listeners in a different way. Its melody absorbs my memory and makes me want more. A good first impression proves its value.
Blouse most likely will remain silent for a bit as they tour Europe, but expect the buzz to pick up as they land back in Portland for a show at the end of February. Consider this show along with their Eurotrip to be used as preparation for their biggest test, the monster that is SXSW. This will not be the only time you hear about Blouse this year, but if it is your first, make sure you do not let this one fall through the cracks. If you do, then I am sure Blouse will find a way to jog your memory as they begin their 2012 campaign.
Written by Brett McGrath