Unknown Mortal Orchestra crept into our hearts a couple of years back with an air of mystery that is rare in this fully exposed age, releasing a couple of deeply intriguing singles followed by a hazy dream of an album that asked as many questions as it answered, coming off like a haunted artifact from a forgotten time and place, a soulful psych-pop gem from an artist cloaked in shadow. Eventually the smoke cleared; UMO is now known to be the vision of a young Portland kid named Ruban Nielson, and what started as a home recording project eventually became pretty much a real touring rock band, no less enthralling in the light of day. On his second full-length, Nielson again handles most all of the instrumental duties (save drums), and delivers another set of haunted pop that sounds fresh, yet draws on a variety of 1970s-vintage moods and grooves, and while II
is full of both transcendent pop and sophisticated guitar textures, and definitely steps up the fidelity from its predecessor, it still sounds more like a well-worn private press LP recorded to two-track than an AOR smash.
The new album opens with an intricate, gently finger-picked guitar riff that morphs into a melancholy pop song deeply in the sway of Tyrannosaurus Rex, but with a dark turn pretty-boy Bolan rarely approached, with Nielson's lovely multi-tracked vocal almost masking the pain of his lyric: "I'm so tired but I can never lay down my head... I'm so lonely but I can never quite reach the phone... Isolation can put a gun in your hand." As the record drifts into the concise two-and-a-half-minute '60s jangle pop "Swim and Sleep," followed by the aching soul-funk of "So Good at Being in Trouble" -- "She's so good at being in trouble, so bad at being in love" -- the album both builds on the strengths of UMO's debut and breaks new ground, a trajectory that continues across the more abstract middle portion of the record, where several more sprawling tracks slowly unfold, never abandoning Nielson's strong songwriting, but taking more chances with elaborate, jazzy arrangements and swirling guitar textures. II
brings it home with another set of tighter songwriting at the tail end, and the pacing works, showcasing the fragile pop, subtle soul and drifting psychedelia that all seem to inform Unknown Mortal Orchestra in equal measure. The mystery may have receded, and while it may be hard to duplicate that thrill of discovery that accompanied our first encounter with UMO, what we are left with is a truly original artist finding his own way.
-Josh Madell (February 6, 2013)
"Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)"