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
I will preface my Top 10 list by saying you won’t find Bon Iver’s self-titled on it. I have nothing against you, Justin, and I do love your album. It’s just you were #11 and Rob told me I could only write about 10. No hard feelings? And without further ado, my Top 10 albums of 2011.
10. Craft Spells – Idle Labor
I feel like this album doesn’t get enough credit for how great it is. New wavish, 1980’s synth electro-dream pop in 2011? And yes, I did in fact have a seizure after I wrote that sentence. In any case, this album features not only my personal #10 song of the year in “After the Moment,” but also such gems as “Scandinavian Crush,” “Party Talk,” and the “Your Tomb.” Like a fine wine, this album gets better with age and every spin I give it.
9. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
When I first heard “How Can U Luv Me” I thought it was an interesting song and a band worth checking out more. Hard to believe the band’s initial hit may be the least interesting song (and it’s still a good song) on this fantastic self-titled debut. Armed with a guitar climbing all over the place and some scratchy mic’d vocals, their sound is one you won’t forget. Be sure to listen to “FFunny FFrends” and “Little Blue House.”
8. Hooray For Earth – True Loves
I first encountered this band listening to SiriusXM U in my car when True Loves came on. The sound of the drum sticks banging the edge and setting the beat….some echoed ahhs and then, the synth drops. My reaction, “What the fuck is this? I like this. No, I really like this.” And even better, the band wasn’t a one hit wonder. “No Love,” “Bring Us Closer Together,” “Last Minute,” and my personal favorite, “Same,” all deserve your attention.
7. The Drums – Portamento
I enjoyed The Drums first self-titled album, but I absolutely love this record. It still features a heavy dose of bass and sing-along choruses, but this one seems to venture down a darker path than its predecessor. The focus of the record is on relationships and eventually, their death. “What You Were,” my favorite track, describes the impending doom of going into a relationship you know isn’t going to work out, but yet, you try anyway. “But still I cave in. I gave you my heart. I cave in. I knew I would die.” Let the The Drums get you through the ones that really hurt.
6. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
How far has this band come? It combines that loveable beach pop from their first record Album (“Honey Bunny”) with a dash of that fuller sound on Broken Dreams Club (“Alex”), ultimately culminating with a true anthem moment on this record (“Vomit”). Taken as a whole, the band dives even deeper into the human spirit than before, resulting in a true masterpiece of sound.
5. Destroyer – Kaputt
A record in the truest sense, this requires being listened to from start to finish to truly appreciate the beauty and entirety of the emotion put into it. Dan Bejar weaves you rich, aesthetically pleasing tracks that will transfer your mind away from this world to whatever you choose to imagine. Perhaps no better song represents this full-bodied work than the 8 minute long “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” in which you’ll begin with a gorgeous flute solo before having a blaring trumpet help you cross the finish line.
4. Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation
Thankfully for us all, Trevor Powers decided to leave his bedroom and share his music with the world. My favorite aspect of this album is how his voice is recorded in lo-fi. At times it sounds so soft and fragile…almost broken, before breaking out in renewed strength and vigor. “Cannons,” “Afternoon, Seventeen,” “Daydream”…actually, just listen to the whole thing.
3. Holy Ghost! – Holy Ghost!
My favorite electronic album of the year, Holy Ghost! brings the fun on their self-titled debut. In fact, as I’m looking at my list, I seem to have enjoyed a lot of the 1980’s pop revival bands that put out records. Well, I was born in the 80’s , so I guess it fits. In either case, “Wait and See, Hold My Breath,” and my #2 song of the year, “Jam For Jerry,” highlight a fantastic debut from this NYC duo that will get your feet moving.
2. The Antlers – Burst Apart
The Antlers make you ponder the big things in life. While Hospice was a runaway emotional train wreck, this album is about musical experimentation while focusing on loneliness and death. But that truthfulness and darkness is what truly makes this band great and this album so beautiful, for they allow the listener to completely dive in and explore parts of ourselves that we don’t on a regular basis. How deep you will go, well, that’s up to you. The Antlers just provide the sound to get you there. Focus on “Parentheses, No Widows,” and personal Top 10er “I Don’t Want Love.”
1. Real Estate – Days
On first glace, this album appears to be about the 21st century American experience of the Suburbs. But at its core, this album is less about the suburbs and more about taking a nostalgic look back at beauty and simplicity in growing up there.
If it takes all summer long
Just to write one simple song
There’s too much to focus on
Clearly that is something wrong
At 26, the sentiment that “life passes you by” is beginning to hit home. My focus has gradually shifted over the years from what I was going to do all summer off school to now how I want to invest my money, how much life insurance I need, and all those other adult questions I used to avoid. Somewhere along the way, I grew up. But while we all can look fondly at the past and with anticipation for the future, don’t ever forget to live in present.
Written by Greg Dahman