Music Reviews

Unknown Mortal Orchestra II

(Jagjaguwar) Rating - 8/10

Working as a cart attendant at Target was about as fulfilling as a glamorous eight bucks an hour could afford, but there was one hidden aspect of the job I grew to love: Finding weird stuff in the shopping carts. Oh sure, the occasional unopened container of shaving cream was certainly useful and welcomed, but it was the totally out-of nowhere stuff, like, say, a custom-made Simpsons yarmulke, that would mysteriously catch my eye and beckon me to bring it home to proudly show my friends my unique find. Sure it may lose its luster as the days turn to weeks, but you never forget the initial “wow” factor of your first experience.

If Portland/New Zealand trio Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s debut single, Ffunny Ffriends, was one of these random curiosities, it would be the kind that crashes into the parking lot like a meteorite, glowing lime green and blasting pop music from outer space. Complete with warped guitars, ambiguous vocals, and a sputtering drum beat that feels like it’s been oscillating for centuries, the song felt totally unique and incredibly hard to explain, with the song wrapped in a lo-fi cloak that made it sound not from a past decade but more like a crackling radio transmission picked up from some dance hall on Mars. Their following self-titled debut would follow suit in this endeavor, feeling more like a pack of Wacky Packages cards as each song proved to be more inventive and grotesque than the next. However, these tracks inevitably felt more like looped sketches than fully-concocted songs, and, as the memory of their whacked-out debut began to fade, it became clear that UMO needed to grow as a band if they hoped to stay relevant.

Fortunately, this is where UMO’s latest, II, excels furthest, as both the album's strongest and weakest moments display a level of maturity and growth that couldn’t have been achieved while the group was little more than an anonymous Bandcamp oddity. While their self-titled debut featured an interesting smorgasbord of twisted pop curiosities, the group’s sophomore album feels vastly more complete and fully realized, with an array of bright, varied pop songs mixed with some more expansive moments that feel more defined and human than anything before it. The core elements present on their debut are still intact, but with songs like the light-as-air Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark) and the sultry So Good at Being in Trouble, UMO find a way to work these quirky elements into well-developed pop songs that balance personality with honesty. There are still a number of surprises to be found, such as the infectious One At a Time, which switches between Bootsy Collins funk and Lennon-esque 60s rock while never stumbling. However, II on the whole feels less interested in throwing listeners off than it does welcoming them to their own unique idea of pop.

One of the aspects of II that immediately caught me off guard was the lyrics, which couldn’t have been more of an afterthought on the band’s debut. On II, however, it seems like singer/songwriter Rubin Nielson is determined to make sure we know exactly how he’s hurting right from the get-go, with the otherwise upbeat and noodly From the Sun opening with the downer, “Isolation can put a gun in your hand,” with more clarity and honesty than we’re used to hearing from these guys. Themes of isolation and uncertainty stalk the album like a hungry hammerhead, as even the crisp suspended chords of Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark) can’t hide downcast  lines like “I'd fall to the bottom and I'd hide 'til the end of time / In that sweet cool darkness.” This comes to a catharsis in the track Faded in the Morning, the one track where the uncertainty and claustrophobia of the lyrics is fully reflected in the music itself, with Nielsons gnarled, knotted riffs bringing an added level of tension to the track not seen in anything the band has written before.

The songs on II also help re-cast UMO as an actual full-functioning band rather than a weird studio experiment, with Nielson’s inventive and proficient guitar gymnastics, ranging from tangled prog licks to space-funk riffs, often leading the charge while band mates Jake Portrait and Riley Geare keep things on track with their propulsive rhythm section. It’s been a while since indie pop – of all genres – had anything resembling a “guitar hero,” but Nielson’s bright, spindly guitar lines, which practically ooze slime out of the frets, show what some creative riffage can do to help your band stand out. As a singular band unit, however, UMO add a bit of freeform exploration into the mix, allowing almost every track to explore their boundaries for a moment before safely settling down. This, however, ends up backfiring in the case of some of the longer tracks, like No Need For a Leader and the drawn out Monki, which end up drastically overstaying their welcome and drift a little too in and out of focus. This, unfortunately, does cause a bit of a mid-album lull, but not one that’s detrimental, especially when considering the superb quality of many of the album's other tracks.

I had initially thought that UMO would suffer the tragic fate of those weird little tchotchke items found in the “miscellaneous” sections of department stores – the ones that draw you in with their unique charm and character yet end up gathering dust on your shelf and leave you with nothing but a bad case of buyer’s remorse. To my surprise, however, II triumphantly bypasses novelty for a more meaningful level of significance: An album whose songs, personality, and band-chemistry come together for something that could well outlast its own current weirdness – a knick knack that, for me, will be spending a lot of time off the shelf.