Release Date: Feb 5, 2013
Record label: Jagjaguwar
"My dreams would be constantly wilting away," Unknown Mortal Orchestra singer-guitarist Ruban Nielson informs us on his band's second album. Bad news for his dreams, good news for his music: The Portland trio make decaying states of consciousness seem like heaven with psychedelic guitar-pop that's alluringly out of focus. Nielson unspools his delightedly spacey mumble-croon over neo-hippie guitar magma and dusty grooves that might've been found in a box out behind Beck's garage.
Very rarely does a record cover as much ground as this trio’s sophomore release. There’s hardly any negative space—II is dense with textures, tones and character, from the contemplative picking and chordal hopscotch in opener “From the Sun” on through. The group has grown tremendously since their 2011 self-titled debut, trading meek, fragile indie-pop for this full-bodied, adventurous set.
Unknown Mortal OrchestraII[Jagjaguwar; 2013]By Harrison Suits Baer; February 4, 2013Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetIt's 3 AM, and I'm wide awake. I'm sitting at the desk in my basement apartment gazing at the blinking cursor in my word processor, under the harsh glare of artificial light. I've just made another pot of coffee.
The shroud of mystery surrounding Unknown Mortal Orchestra after the appearance of the “Ffunny Ffriends” single on Bandcamp in 2010 inadvertently revved up the ol’ hype machine. That eventually dissipated when the identities of the band members—which include former Mint Chick/New Zealand transplant Ruban Nielson—became known, and UMO released their self-titled debut the following year. But the music spoke for itself: A modern, beat-heavy take on ’60s psych, with plenty of hooks and fuzz to get you hooked and feeling fuzzy.
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.
For his dense, mellow second album, Ruban Nielson continues to challenge himself and his audience by working within the detailed sonic framework crafted on Unknown Mortal Orchestra's 2011 debut. Like on Nielson's first outing, the songs are a hodgepodge of collaged headphone candy, revolving around his childlike vocals, wonder, and multi-layered production, but here, lighthearted pop melodies are obscured by a melancholy tone. There are hooks, but they are not quite as obvious.
It’s something of a miracle that Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s singer Ruban Nielson is even alive to make a second album. Since his 2011 debut, Nielson has been testing the limits of the mind with a cocktail of drugs that would make Raoul Duke from Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas blush. Nielson describes his commitment to partying on tour as an “occupational hazard”.
While some albums get better over time, others seem to burst into bud on their second or third playing, but then mysteriously stop right there. Ruban Nielson's smart psych-rock songs – bubbly waterfalls of guitar, wily bass-lines and enjoyable stumbles in rhythm – belong in the former category: it takes a while, but they reveal themselves to be warm, friendly creatures. His interest in atmospherics is matched by big, Robert Plant-style blues tunes (Monki, Faded in the Morning) and flashes of Motown (So Good at Being in Trouble), while Secret Xians is as casual and clever as Paul McCartney's Martha My Dear.
Now that the thrilling mystery of figuring out exactly who Unknown Mortal Orchestra actually are has subsided, the music world can get on with trying to fully comprehend the otherworldly psychedelia of their sound. While a year and a half might not be time enough to wholly get your head around the sonic head trip of the Portland by-way-of New Zealand trio’s dynamically inventive self-titled debut, at least you now know what hazy musical vapours these guys draw their creativity from. But even with that loose, untethered album serving as a guide to get the listener to this point, you still aren’t fully prepared for II, their frustratingly muted but nevertheless enthralling follow-up.
Portland-via-New Zealand psychedelic soul auteur Ruban Nielson returns here with another batch of cozy nuggets. That word—nuggets—is not used lightly here, as Nielson's unabashed throwback vibe quickly invites comparisons to all the also-ran '60s artists on Nuggets compilations, or at times even venturing into Eccentric Soul territory. One is quickly reminded of other contemporaries who exist out of time: Kelley Stoltz, Tame Impala, the whole Elephant 6 crew, and so on.
The anonymity trick may have helped Unknown Mortal Orchestra gain notoriety at the outset, but it soon became the least interesting thing about them. Their self-titled debut was a wonderful record that lived up to the promise of early singles "Ffunny Ffriends" and "How Can U Luv Me". And the more we got to know Ruban Nielson, the more compelling he became; an outspoken, opinionated frontman, and, even rarer in the indie rock realm, a truly badass guitar player as well.
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.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra first came into existence with the captivating, psychedelic rock of Ffunny Ffrends, a song that was posted on singer and guitarist Ruban Nielson’s Bandcamp profile in 2010. There was very little information about the band or the song at the time, but since then the mysterious trio have released their self-titled debut album in 2011, which brought them critical acclaim and exposure. With success came a move to well-respected indie label Jagjaguwar and added expectation ahead of their second album, appropriately entitled II.
Was Ruban Neilson this fucked up on Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s debut? Were we just not paying attention? On II, whose opening tune outlines with roundabout gawkiness a desire to blast one’s brain from its mortal stirrups, the cat is out the bag: “I’m so lonely but I can never quite reach the phone,” Neilson mourns on ‘From the Sun’, “I’ve gotta eat my popcorn all alone. . .
Unknown Mortal Orchestra's Ruban Nielson has a tattoo of an eye on his neck – specifically, on his throat chakra, said to rule communication. Somewhat surprisingly, the 32-year-old New Zealand-born, Oregon-dwelling musician claimed to music website Pitchfork recently that he is not a hippy This, despite his wife and two children having lived in a midwife's yurt for a time, and despite Nielson having the kind of freewheeling attitude to life management that saw him sign a record deal on a napkin in a bar. "I eat fried chicken on the road," he avows.
One of the most captivating lines of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides happens when the choir of neighborhood boys narrating the tale describe their mysterious and strangely beautiful neighbor, Cecilia Lisbon. While stumbling upon her secret diary, rife with nonsensical musings and disembodied drawings of dying oak trees, one of the boys blurts out: “What we have here is a dreamer. Someone completely out of touch with reality.
“Constantly floating away…” — evaporation and dissipation are the main themes operating on II, the second album by Unknown Mortal Orchestra. They’re well-versed concepts in the psychedelic revivalist environment, a culture soaked in experimentation of the transcendental, in the domain of both the physical and the psychological. Yet there’s also a befuddled existentialist dancing in the background of this hazy dream, and the majority of the songs simultaneously link the two in a some vaguely passionate lucid dream, captured and re-imagined by Ruban Nielson, Jake Portrait, and Riley Geare.
In the summer of 2011, few things were as satisfying as the gritty opening drum kicks to "Ffunny Ffrends" by the then mysterious Unknown Mortal Orchestra. More than a year later, their aptly-named sophomore album II unveils with almost the exact same laid-back beat, but not before a long duet of swirling guitars and processed vocals. Without a pronounced bass support and focus instead on muted acoustic guitar, the introduction almost made me second-guess whether I was actually listening to UMO or not.
The cover art for Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s self-titled debut LP in 2011 featured a photo of a multi-tiered silver structure that looked like a spaceship. As band founder Ruban Nielson explained at the time, it was an image of a Spomenik, one in a handful of Yugoslavian monuments constructed in the 1960s and 1970s in honor of World War II. The band’s sophomore album, II, again reaches for an image from the past, this one of Janet Farrar, a practicing British Wiccan who has written books on witchcraft and the occult.
New Zealand native Ruban Nielson's psychedelicized, lo-fi safari scored out of the box on intrigue alone, but sustaining that initial buzz across Unknown Mortal Orchestra's debut was a stretch. With album No. 2, Nielson augments his colorful canvas with a new level of cohesion that seals the deal. Much credit belongs to drummer Riley Geare, who holds down a steadfast groove that gives form to Nielson's underwater AM radio signal.
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.