A second LP of minimal flab that builds on the positives of its predecessor.
Daniel Ross 2013
From under a cloud of anonymity and a fug of re-hashed and re-vamped psychedelia emerged Unknown Mortal Orchestra, seemingly from nowhere. Dutifully, critics and blogs thanked their lucky stars that the indie world had regained some intrigue, no matter how fleeting, and heaped plaudits on their eponymous debut album of 2011.
Revealing their identity as three boys from Portland, Oregon, led by Kiwi musician and former member of The Mint Chicks Ruban Nielson, was the first step towards the novelty wearing off. Increasingly, Unknown Mortal Orchestra were left with nothing but their tunes to protect them.
Weathering that initial burst of hype has inevitably raised expectations for a follow-up album that, by Nielson’s own admission, is not hugely different from the first. If there are discernible musical differences, it’s that there’s a little more clarity and slightly less reliance on the fuzz pedals – except on the wah-gasm of One at a Time, which remains delightfully disgusting.
But we are afforded a little more time getting closer to Nielson’s rapidly accelerating guitar prowess, particularly on first single Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark). That track alone is reason enough to buy II, placidly holding back its volume so that the full melodiousness of that guitar can stand proudly at the front.
It’s almost enough to make you forget the rather sombre disposition of the lyrics. When Nielson sings about wanting to disappear and “fall to the bottom”, it’s not affecting because of what he’s saying as much as it is because the guitar is a perfect match for it – a sign that his songwriting has become a craft rather than a puzzle.
There’s minimal flab elsewhere on II, with echoes of Love at their poppiest and most blues-indebted (especially on the surprisingly indulgent seven-minute boogie-fest Monki) and 13th Floor Elevators at their scratchiest. But thankfully throwbacks aren’t a concern when the songs are as wonderfully complete as they are on this record.
Now that everyone knows who they are, and much as they might protest, stepping into the limelight with confidence might not be the worst thing for Unknown Mortal Orchestra right now.