Unknown Mortal Orchestra II - review, plus short takes

by The Listener / 21 February, 2013
Ruban Nielson’s new album feels like it was written in a waking dream.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra

When the Mint Chicks broke up just over three years ago, it was in the most literal way, with singer Kody Nielson turning their equipment to kindling at the end of their final gig.

The upside of losing this most volatile and inspired of local bands is that several fresh musical projects have risen from the remnants. Bass player Michael Logie has been getting happy in loop heaven with his one-man-band F in Math, while Nielson has collaborated extensively with Bic Runga, who also joins him as drummer in Opossom. Best of all, elder brother Ruban Nielson, currently resident in Portland, Oregon, has just released his second album as Unknown Mortal Orchestra.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra II is an album of psychedelic nocturnes. The songs seem to come from a solitary, surreal place in the deepest part of a very long night.

It is a place of both ineffable sadness and curious comfort. And it is the constant presence of such opposing forces that gives Nielson’s songs their edge. Over gnarly riffs that recall numerous blues-rock archetypes, he builds spiralling, unexpectedly beautiful melodies.

At their loneliest and scariest, they can evoke a state close to psychosis. “Isolation, it can put a gun in your hand,” Nielson worries in the very first track. “I wish I could swim and sleep like a shark does,” he yearns in the song that follows. And yet the songs also express a type of bliss, perhaps known only to the nocturnal. Whatever fears the words may be whispering, the effect of tunes like The Opposite of Afternoon and Faded in the Morning is uplifting.

Sonically, there is a gauzy, opaque quality to it all, as though we are hearing it underwater or through a veil of smoke. It is exactly the right sound for an album that feels like it was written in a waking dream.

Although nominally a band, Unknown Mortal Orchestra remains essentially the work of an obsessive solo artist. Nielson’s guitar is central, taking familiar modes as jumping-off points for unpredictable excursions. In one song, he conjures Keith Richards’s immortal Gimme Shelter riff, then shatters it through a kaleidoscope of chord changes. Elsewhere, he evokes the delicate side of Jimi Hendrix. And the way the bass and drums remain loose while obeying some unifying pulse suggests Nielson is playing most of these parts himself.

On stage, Unknown Mortal Orchestra is a trio, and although the one-man-in-the-basement quality of these recordings suits the subterranean mood of the songs on this satisfying album, they also feel like they are blueprints for something that will only grow bigger in performance.

UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA II, Unknown Mortal Orchestra (Jagjaguwar).

Short Takes

How did a young band from Hamilton come to make an album as good as NOCTURNE, the independently produced debut of Strayhound (strayhound.bandcamp.com)? By scrounging downtime at the music studios of Wintec (Waikato Institute of Technology) and having terrific songs and a level of musical accomplishment that belies their years. Although their sound could be broadly classed as Americana, that label hardly does justice to the melancholy pop of Desperation Bloom, brooding ambience of Fool’s Gold or overall inventiveness of a band I fear will need to leave the Waikato – if not the country – to find the appreciation they deserve.

The sometime Auckland-based Ruby Suns decamped to Norway to record CHRISTOPHER (Sub Pop), and the album has the retro-disco feel of a contemporary Scandinavian pop record (think Robyn, namechecked in the opening track). But beneath the shiny surface of syn-drums, sample horns and dance beats are songs of heartache and loss. Suns mainman Ryan McPhun may have made a dance record, but it seems he’s dancing alone.

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