UMO cover
The second album from Unknown Mortal Orchestra is called ‘II’ and is released in early February. It’s wonderful. I mean that in a very literal sense – it is full of wonder for me. I say that as someone who has heard a lot of music over the years and has a pathological need to join up musical dots throughout history. Albums like this – at once comfortingly familiar, yet taking an exciting leap over the edge – help affirm my optimism that creativity and originality in music is far from over.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra recordings appear to be mostly just the work of Ruban Nielson, formerly of New Zealand ‘troublegum’ band The Mint Chicks, and now based in Portland on the US West Coast. He has some assistance on drums on some tracks from brother Kody (once of the Mint Chicks, now of Opossom).
[All photos from Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Instagram account via their website, this one of Ruban by Lesley Keller]

Unknown Mortal Orchestra recordings avoid the artificial shimmer and distracting sparkle of a contemporary production, instead preferring something approaching the kind of simple, clipped tightness of the early 70’s psychedelic R&B soul of the likes of Shuggie Otis. Some call their sound ‘lo-fi’, but lo-fi is the tape hiss of cassette portastudios and primitive digital home-recording equivalents using cheap gear today. This is carefully recorded to sound the way it does.

The constrained ‘boxiness’ of the production serves to focus all attention on the music – mostly just gorgeous and often intricate and inventive guitar, along with bass and drums and a grainy, effect-distressed falsetto voice overtop – and the songs; each perfectly formed, inventive, playful, sometimes melancholy and always melodically expansive. The sound is likely a deliberate part of the texture here. Like a dusty patina over a picture, it seems designed to partly obscure and encrypt the contents. Ruban doesn’t seem to be the kind of person who wants anything to be too clear.

The guitar playing is the most immediately striking feature of the album. Sometimes restrained and delicate, other times bold and powerful, it picks out the vocal melody or unfolds intricate classical patterns and unlikely chord progressions. ‘Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)’ is a stand-out for its gorgeous classical guitar refrain and elliptical chord progression, like some kind of space-age psychedelic baroque chamber pop.

The next most striking feature is the bass playing and the effortless groove, punctuated with McCartney-esque melodic bloops and eruptions over shuffling hypnotic beats. It seems like the groove in some of these songs could go on forever and it’s fitting that the lovely psychedelic soul of ‘Monki’ should glide past 7 minutes, with the final minute an extended fadeout while the guitar burbles away delicately in the distance.

If there is a lyrical theme throughout the album it may be one of isolation, escape and hiding, drifting and exhaustion – both physical and existential. It may have resulted from a period of continual touring but it also seems to match the times we live in. Rather than being depressing or defeatist, the gentle meditation of much of the music here is just as well suited to re-charging energy. The most psychedelic moment – ‘The Opposite of Afternoon’ – is as uplifting and celebratory as a Small Faces knees up in its own strange way. And there are enough blasts of driving energy from songs like the motorik ‘No Need for a Leader’ and the abrasive, distorted rock of ‘Faded in the Morning Time’ to keep things in balance.

I imagine whispers of things from the past mixed in here – the occasional impossible string-bending guitar part reminiscent of something Eddie Hansen might have conjured up on the 1972 debut ‘Awake’ by NZ acid-rock pioneers Ticket, or a hint of ‘Abbey Road’ Beatles or late period Small Faces. And the hushed soulful groove is at times reminiscent of Dimmer’s classic ‘I Believe You Are a Star’ album. But, unlike a band like the Allah-Las for example, who are ‘retro’ in every aspect of their sound, any possible influences here have been filtered, broken apart and re-assembled in a way that is very fresh and distinctive. The best musicians and songwriters use influences and precursors as a starting point from which to explore possibilities, and make something new and original in the process. Unknown Mortal Orchestra ‘II’ is a trip beyond the music of the past and the present and I can’t get enough of it.

[The album is streaming here, at NPR, probably for a limited time]