words by DENISE LU
In the summer of 2011, few things were as satisfying as the gritty opening drum kicks to “Ffunny Ffrends” by the then mysterious Unknown Mortal Orchestra. More than a year later, their aptly-named sophomore album II unveils with almost the exact same laid-back beat, but not before a long duet of swirling guitars and processed vocals. Without a pronounced bass support and focus instead on muted acoustic guitar, the introduction almost made me second-guess whether I was actually listening to UMO or not. Any doubt, however, was soon dismissed as the bass and drums kick in a third of the way into the track, rounding out the full, warm sound UMO always delivers.
If their self-titled debut was any indication of an experiment in funk and garage, UMO’s II delves deeper into the jazz-tinged psychedelia end as guitarist Ruban Nielson’s riffs become a more prominent character alongside his strange, otherworldly vocals. Diverging a long way from The Mint Chicks, his previous power-punk outfit that indulged in two-minute hits of adrenaline, Nielson’s UMO has developed even further with this new collection of personal cuts that explore themes of loneliness and isolation.
Along these lines of alienation, it sounds like Nielson went back to the thrifted tape recorders he used generously in his last album to again filter his falsetto. Yet, this time around, with the mellow lone guitar, Nielson seems to be whispering personal thoughts on songs like “Secret Xtians” and “So Good At Being In Trouble” as opposed to leading mild anthem choruses. Even the upbeat garage rock cuts that sound like they belong to some sort of neo-Nuggets compilation sound distant and toned down, balanced by tracks like “Swim and Sleep” and “The Opposite Of Afternoon” that pit lyrical guitar riffs as a counterpoint against soft vocals.
“Swim and Sleep”
With UMO’s more developed sound, it seems like there’s still a lot of exploration on II. There’s wondering and noodling around with complex melodies and a lot less of the quick-hit catchy riffs that radiated from their older songs. A welcomed change, UMO’s new approach showcases intricate guitar work that sings on its own. When it’s not acting as a prominent voice, it’s spotlighted on songs like “From The Sun,” in which a humble psych guitar solo fades the track out to uncertainty, similar to how a handful of other songs end on the album.
This uncertainty lingers on “Dawn,” an instrumental, atmospheric track reminiscent of UFO sound effects, a red herring of sorts. But the track is surprisingly relaxing, perhaps as solace is found in the strange. Whereas their last album piqued interest with new, abnormal sounds, II builds on this intrigue but in a calming manner, still drenched in the lo-fi, fuzzy warmness solidified with a cranked up bass.
In late 2010 when Nielson threw a track up on Bandcamp on a whim, UMO was never meant to be anything more than an experiment. With II, UMO remains humble in composition and production, creating an honest album that comforts in the strangest ways. [B+]
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