Archives for posts with tag: Unknown Mortal Orchestra
'Proteus' by Astro Children

‘Proteus’ by Astro Children

This is not a best of 2013 list, just the albums I played and enjoyed the most in 2013. As is the custom in such lists I have ranked these in order which more or less means the closer to 1 they are the more I played and enjoyed them. Simple…

There is no science in this. Nor is there any particular claim to artistic merit, but feel free to read whatever you want into the rankings (and omissions) – it’s more fun that way!

(If I’ve written something here about the album during the year there will be a link to that.)

So… PopLib’s Top 10 Favourite Albums of 2013 were:

10 – Inside a Replica City – Strange Harvest (self-released)
9 – Pearl Mystic by Hookworms (Gringo Records)
8 – A Pebble & A Paper Crane by Kane Strang (self-released)
7 – Plumes by Ginnels (Tenorio Cotobade)
6 – Tumult in Clouds by Ela Orleans (Clandestine)
5 – The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas by Courtney Barnett (Milk!)
4 – Slow Summits by The Pastels (Domino)
3 – Waiting for Something to Happen by Veronica Falls (Slumberland/ Bella Union)
2 – II by Unknown Mortal Orchestra (Jagjaguwar)
1 – Proteus by Astro Children (Muzai Records)

Astro Children at the Kings Arms in Auckland, December 2013. Photo by Ben Howe from

Astro Children at the Kings Arms in Auckland, December 2013. Photo by Ben Howe from

[I think ‘Tumult in Clouds’ by Ela Orleans was first released in 2012. I heard it mid 2013 and it is set for re-issue in 2014 (the original Clandestine pressing sold out). For the purpose of this list I’m treating this timeless double LP classic as a 2013 release.]

Other contenders – Calendar Days by Dick Diver, Any Port in a Storm by Scott & Charlene’s Wedding, Tussle by Day Ravies, The Man who Died in his Boat by Grouper, Floating Coffin by Thee Oh Sees, The Flower Lane by Ducktails, Victoria & Jacob by Victoria & Jacob, The Argument by Grant Hart.

The only reasons these albums didn’t burst into the Top 10 are (1) The Top 10 is only 10 and it is already full and (2) I haven’t had as much time to listen to these yet as the others so they are ‘less played’ so far (but not necessarily less enjoyed when they were played).

The album by Victoria & Jacob arrived just before Christmas (from the wonderful Where It’s At Is Where You Are (WIAIWYA) label in the UK). It’s a cracker. If you want to like CHVRCHES but just can’t get past the sugary sheen of their electro-pop or the gratuitous use of “V” in their name, then I recommend the Victoria & Jacob album as a much better exploration of that genre. It’s electronic pop, with beautiful vocals and big beats. But it’s also a bit darker, heavier and somehow dreamier than CHVRCHES & much more satisfying as a result. There’s a slight reminder of early Cocteau Twins and an even bigger reminder of 90s Scottish electro-dreampop outfit One Dove (both favourites here) and I have enjoyed the Victoria & Jacob album a lot in the short time I’ve been playing it.

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]