Unknown Mortal Orchestra: II 



To describe music as “out-of-time” is basically to say that it sounds old in a way that can't be pinned to a specific decade. The term comes up repeatedly in reference to New Zealand-via-Portland pop band Unknown Mortal Orchestra. When fuzzy, low-key funk songs like “Ffunny Friends” and “How Can U Luv Me” first hit the Internet, their makers enjoyed a mysterious anonymity that made it easy to pretend the songs were some forgotten old thing, a prize from your best-ever day of crate-digging. With an acclaimed debut behind them and its follow-up now upon us, songwriter Ruban Nielson has had to become demystified a bit. In a recent Pitchfork interview he said, “I don't really care about nowness and newness, so I'm not that proud of being alive in 2012.” He lists this record’s influences as The Beatles, Stones, Floyd, and Zeppelin, which sounds plausible. But those evergreen inspirations don’t quite get to the cozy appeal of UMO’s sound, which depends heavily on confident grooviness and the novelty of such confident grooviness in the midst of murmuring lo-fidelity. The baked-in vinyl crackle of those first hits actually led to slight confusion at shows immediately following the record’s release—an audience ready to dance and a band that was still a little hung up on psych riffing.

II is also gently funky and bathwater warm, with undercurrents that are not-so-subtly dark. A quick Internet search on Nielson’s old Flying Nun-signed noise-rock band Mint Chicks brings up stories of decibel levels loud enough to crumble old theaters and Nielson wielding an onstage chainsaw to obliterate corporate stage banners. That aggression is out of his system for good, apparently. “Isolation can put a gun in your hand” isn’t a cheery opening line, but "From the Sun" develops from gorgeous strum to back-patting buck-up without much time spent wallowing. “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” is even prettier and, unexpectedly, even lonelier, longing for the blank relief of an unconscious drift. That one segues into the lived-in soul of “So Good at Being in Trouble,” in which Nielson’s airy voice develops a sincere ache. Then there’s a 70s funk sketch that gets out at the right time, followed by a wispy song that sounds like the first Shins album with a better rhythm section. It’s strength to strength to strength for the whole of the first half. Nervous excitement builds.

But the second half falls off, if not disastrously so. “No Need For a Leader” is the boldest stab at classic-rock radio, though its crunchy leads quickly cede to rhythm-guitar glides. Its lyrics have a dorm-room weed-cloud feel, unworkable political daydreaming mixed up with funny, morbid non sequiturs: “We open someone new. We eat their bones and wonder why they’ve got no bones left.” From there it ambles away to a pleasant nap, with decent moments lacking the first half's flawless execution. It's such an enjoyable record that front-loading can't ruin it, but it runs out of ideas before it runs out of time.


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