Unknown Mortal Orchestra: II Review (Three Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are three reactions, three impressions, three takes on II by Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
Steve Skavnak (@steveskavnak)
My infatuation with Unknown Mortal Orchestra has been steadily growing the past two years, ever since they easily blew the headliners out of the water, opening for Smith Westerns at the Triple Rock in February 2011. Their self-titled debut made my Top 10 of that same year, and when they came back to town that summer supporting Yuck at The Varsity, they again proved why they’re so buzzworthy, all while shrouded in complete darkness.
Just a few tracks into the aptly titled II, though, I realized that this infatuation had blossomed into a full on love affair. Ruban Nielson’s guitar playing sounds effortless, resulting in blissful, reverb-rich psychedelic hooks bleeding from your speakers, none that are more in your face than that of “The Opposite of Afternoon” (never mind the James Mercer-esque intro). The most surprising success, though, is Nielson’s knack for true pop sensibility, something that didn’t present itself as noticeably on UMO’s first record. “So Good at Being in Trouble” is oozing with R&B undertones, even allowing Nielson to belt out a little falsetto, showing that the frontman might not be as shy as his live performances indicate.
While the energy and exploration of II definitely tapers off with the pointless “Dawn” and dreary, confusing “Secret Xtians,” UMO have 1) triumphed in avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump and 2) proved that they’re anything but a one trick pony.
UMO’s sophomore record II starts promisingly enough. The first two tracks “From the Sun” and “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” are each excellent mix of pop and psychedelic funk. Just when you begin to think that UMO is going to pull off a successful sequel of their excellent debut though, starting with “So Good at Being in Trouble” things start to get a little stale. If “So Good” was the album’s worst track it wouldn’t be all bad – but from then on things get progressively worse. Not offensive – just kind of bland, aimless guitar noodling and vapid harmonies that never seem to muster the strength to get out of bed. Luckily that only lasts for a few songs but it stops the record dead in its tracks. A few good tracks bolster II’s back half (namely “Monki” and “Secret Xitians”) but it’s not enough to really spread the weight of the album’s middle out evenly. The semi-ambient “Dawn” is stalls out any kind of backend rally, leaving II on a relatively flaccid note. II definitely shows signs of what UMO are capable of, but unfortunately on a very uneven basis. For the time being I will stick with their debut for primary listening.
I don’t know why it is I have a soft spot for the squeaky clean, pop-psychedelia of bands like Tame Impala and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, but I do. Both released debut albums that I liked quite a bit, LP’s that I found were perfect for spinning when spending time with people who didn’t want to hear the usual ambient/noise/scuzzy garage rock that I would choose (you know, “normal” people). They both have recently released follow up records, with Tame Impala doubling down on the wide-eyed, colorful version of their first record (the buoyant “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” was a stirring, successful version of this). Where Tame Impala seem hell bent on revisiting the tie-dyed, pie in the sky vision that wobbled into our conscious with their first LP, Unknown Mortal Orchestra created a sleepy follow up to their (sometimes) funky debut.
If Tame Impala’s music is the world through a rainbow tinted kaleidoscopic, II from UMO is the world from behind droopy eyelids. On tracks like “Monki,” I almost wondered if they recorded them late at night as they were falling asleep. Tracks plod along at a snail pace, preformed almost in a hushed reference. Even the more “upbeat” tracks like “Faded in the Morning” and “One at a Time” feel a half step behind the tracks on their debut and can seem distant and hollow. There is some beauty in the distance, namely the sweet “So Good at Being in Trouble,” but often the record feels under cooked, especially when contrasted with the slinky grooves on songs like “How Can U Luv Me.” While they still show themselves to be adapt at writing pop-psychedelia ear candy, via their warm arrangements and Ruban Nielson’s pristine falsetto, the sleepiness on the record, like someone yawning, is contagious. If they were shooting to create a record to spin while you are drifting off to sleep, they have succeeded, if not, they need some Red Bull.