Sound — 8
Unknown Mortal Orchestra released their eponymous first album in 2011 to much critical acclaim. It went on to win the 2012 Taite Music Prize, the annual award for best album from New Zealand. I got a chance to see them open for Grizzly Bear on their Fall 2012 tour, and they were awesome. I had never heard of them before the concert, but their performance was memorable, which I think is mostly due to the catchy riffs from their first album. Their first album was very listenable with cheerful melodies and intricate electric solos. But that description is not even very revealing of their sound because I still have trouble pin-pointing their type of music and comparing them to other artists. My Zune program labels them Electronica while I've also seen them under Alternative and Indie. On "II" I hear soul, psychedelia, blues, classic rock, and distortion. The mood of the album changes quite a bit from beginning to end. The first track "From The Sun" starts "II" with a beat that is somewhat similar to their debut album's sound: bouncy and infectious. The second track "Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark)" stays upbeat and dreamy with Ruban Nielson's meticulous guitar melodies and strums. The song structure repeats from high to low and up to down like a wave, which is a great effect given the song's lyrics. "So Good At Being In Trouble" switches the vibe to easy and bluesy. The sparkly solos decrease and the song relies more on simple chords and a relaxed drum beat. The fifth track "The Opposite Of Afternoon" starts with a light yet powerful riff that then breaks down into the remainder of the song, which is characterized by guitar lines with lots of treble and a bumbling bass in the background. "No Need For A Leader" contains a simplistic yet strong power-chord riff that blazes between the verses and there's a lot of energy. And then it fades out and stumbles into the lengthy and drawn-out "Monki", which changes the mood substantially again. Track eight "Dawn" is just a minute of a glowing synthesizer. But I guess it thematically setups up the next track "Faded In The Morning" which brings back the loudness and energy from track four and six. The bass is more present in the song than the guitar, and the drums rumble and roll non-stop. The album ends on "Secret Xtians" which retains some of the pop and jangle from "From The Sun" while also being loose and melancholy like "So Good At Being In Trouble". Ruban Nielson (singer, songwriter, guitarist) is an impressive guitar player evidenced by his strangely complex solos, clear and powerful licks, and his unique singing during both types of playing.
Lyrics — 8
The lyrics, like the music, are varied. Some of the more poppy, cheery melodies on the album like "From The Sun" and "Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark)" are really about less happy things like suicide, lonesomeness, and the desire to be like a man-eating predator. In the pleasant melody of the first track, Nielson sings "Isolation can put a gun in your hand," and then on the second track sings, "I wish that I could swim and sleep like a shark does / I'd fall to the bottom and I'd hide 'til the end of time / in the sweet, cool darkness". It gets a little political (or really a-political) on "No Need For A Leader" as Nielson seems to be mocking modern democracy as he says, "Maybe one day we'll find we have / no need for a leader / I watch the faces on a screen / No question what I'll have to pay for my apathy." But there is a hint of pessimism in the this song and the rest of album, for example, he says "The winds of change are a lot unfriendlier these days." Overall, the lyrics are pretty surreal and crafted poetically. On "The Opposite Of Afternoon", Nielson says, "Open eyes in the gardens of sight it's alright / Only when you crawl in the dirt / Frozen invitations to a solvent gloom tonight / Bones are broken, veins are open / All done in the opposite of afternoon." Nielson croons as he sings "afternoon" and makes it almost like a howl. The lyrics rhyme playfully and curiously. Nielson's voice is light, sometimes a little screechy, and also stuck between all the distortion. He sounds more appropriate on the dreamier tracks like "Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark)" but less so on "One At A Time". The vocals on "Faded In The Morning" are hit or miss as they rise and fall almost exactly with the shifting guitar line, but I enjoy them.
Overall Impression — 7
Looking at the album artwork and lyrics closely, it's pretty clear that Unknown Mortal Orchestra are trying to be weird, really weird (their cover art is of a girl holding a sword tinted in a gross orange color with a background of alien pine trees). But they make a special kind of weirdness that is both happily awkward and oddly appealing. But I think the odd- and awkwardness of this band are more clear on "II" than on "Unknown Mortal Orchestra", which was merry and inviting. So, for new listeners, get to their first album before this one. Even though the band is just a three piece, they can definitely experiment and capture different types of rock; some harder, some softer. But Nielson's floaty voice keeps the whole record less serious and more relaxed. I still can't give solid artist comparisons for Unknown Mortal Orchestra. On "No Need For A Leader", I think I hear an old classic rock riff like from the The Doobie Brothers or something, and some songs I hear soul and blues. "One At A Time" is like electrified power disco or whatever. Top tracks for me are "Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark)", "The Opposite Of Afternoon", and "No Need For A Leader".