The party line for Unknown Mortal Orchestra is that Ruban Nielson started the bedroom project-turned-indie rock band as a one-off project to occupy his time while forgoing music for a regular job. After listening to II, Nielson’s excellent second album under the UMO moniker, you’d have to forgive me for not believing that little piece of PR magic. Sure, maybe he didn’t expect to have another shot at making a career out of music after the dissolution of the Mint Chicks, but the stuff that he’s put out so far is too crafted to be considered the work of someone just messing around. Nielson hit an interesting groove when starting Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and II is his great leap forward. Its melding of funk, classic rock, and indie rock makes for one of the best listens of this young year.
There’s something inherently comforting about II, from its classicist musical bent to the gentle tape hiss that characterizes the production. Everything about the album is familiar in a pleasant way, like returning home after a long period of time away. Perhaps it’s the familiarity of the soulful psychedelic blend that UMO craft into songs, but plenty of groups have attempted to recall the glories of music’s past only to be scorned as cheap imitations. Ruban Nielson is a smart songwriter, though, and he knows not to make obvious reaches towards his inspirations. “So Good at Being in Trouble”, for example, tips UMO’s roots in soul and funk, especially Sly Stone circa There’s a Riot Goin’ On. But the timbre in Nielson’s voice and the general melancholy feel keep it from being an outright attempt to sound like someone else. While Nielson’s musical influences are obvious ones, they’re also filtered through his singular voice, which keeps II sounding fresh even when it gets especially familiar.
Even so, Unknown Mortal Orchestra remain unpredictable. Slow, groovy tracks like “Trouble” are placed alongside bursts of guitar and horns on “One at a Time”. “The Opposite Of Afternoon” begins with what could be mistaken for a lost Kinks demo before taking off into a completely different song, one with bouncier bass and more warped guitar than anything Ray Davies ever tried. The lone unifying factor throughout the album is the druggy haze that hangs over the album. The production is the real star of II, as it turns a homage like “Afternoon” into something twisted and energetic while turning “No Need for a Leader” from a basic riffer into something far more sinister. However, “Monki” is the best argument for how this album sounds. For another band, this would probably be just another slow jam, but the effects applied to Nielson’s vocals and the short, well-timed bursts of guitar make it into something stranger, more alien, and fascinating enough to warrant its seven minute running time.
II isn’t necessarily an amazing or groundbreaking record. Most everything is derived from something else, and Ariel Pink has done more respectably weird stuff while roaming in similar sonic territory. Even so, Unknown Mortal Orchestra have crafted a tight, enjoyable sophomore album that solidifies their sound and sets them apart from their peers and musical ancestors. This is definitely not the kind of album made by someone for whom music is just a hobby.