Sound — 8
Unknown Mortal Orchestra is a psychedelic rock band that is located in Portland, USA but has its roots in New Zealand. The band has flown onto the music scene quickly, releasing now three albums in five years without much of an extended underground background. They have steadily been climbing the charts (their last album reached #2 on the US Heatseekers Chart) while getting rave reviews all along the way.
Something that many people like about Unknown Mortal Orchestra is their questionable musical identity, which many have just defaulted to calling psychedelic. And yes, there are some telltale psychedelic elements present (single coil electric guitars, chorus effects, airy vocals), but there is something else, something more. The songs are much too organized for normal psychedelia; the way certain instruments (especially the horns) weave in and out of the arrangement is too precise, too planned to be a spontaneous jam, like most psychedelic songs are. The songs on this album are also very serene. The gentle vocals of Ruban Nielson intermingle with the clear, well-produced guitars and the luscious, all-encompassing bass to create a vibe that feels like easy listening music. Yet at the same time, the arrangements are too complex for easy listening music. There are choruses and the riffs are easy to follow but at the same time there is not the rote repetition one expects with easy listening music. The album reaches a happy equilibrium whereby the sound is calm enough that it can be listened to like elevator music yet it is complex enough to entertain the listener's mind if he/she pays attention. However, by the same token, nothing is catchy enough to be memorable; there is never something solid to latch onto; if anything the music can be appreciated like jazz or jam band music, which is ironic because the songs don't sound spontaneous like these genres.
Since the vocals are pretty fluffy, your musical gratification will come from the guitar work. The bass and drums provide a solid base for the guitars to operate and the space is filled quite nicely. The band also uses additional instruments, most often horns, across the album. They add variety at the right moments, when it appears that the guitars are close to overstaying their welcome on the center stage.
The synergy of the bass and drums cannot be discounted either. Yes, they do provide a "solid base" for the guitars, but the reality is that all good rhythm sections do this. Unknown Mortal Orchestra's rhythm section goes a little further. The bassist and drummer create mini-grooves on their own which could stand alone if need be. Of course, the guitars and vocals glaze over the rhythm section to full effect, but it is still nice to hear an above average rhythm section jamming out.
Lyrics — 6
Ruban Nielson's vocals fill their designated space well enough. The vocal melodies are fairly catchy and they're entertaining enough to keep someone from turning the station on the radio (though the instruments should provide enough on their own to keep the songs interesting). The problem is that Nielson doesn't vary his vocal delivery across the album. Given the up in the air nature of the vocals to begin with, it doesn't take long for them to drop into a head voice haze. And even though the vocal melodies are catchy, they are not quite memorable; I could hum the tunes in an elevator if a song were to come on, yet I wouldn't be able to remember what I had been humming later in the day.
Lyrically, Nielson mostly follows the standard psychedelic themes that deal with life and what life would be like if we could live on clouds (maybe not that specific). Here is a sampling of the aforementioned lyrics from the opening and title track, "Multi-Love":
All of the other stalker daughters dragged her under,
May all her mind be made up,
I'll be your Vicodin, expired and escaped to Valhalla,
She don't want to be a man or a woman,
She wants to be your love."
Overall Impression — 6
The sad thing is that, at the end of the day, despite all the great qualities this album possesses, I can't imagine this being something that a lot of people would want to listen to more than once or twice. Maybe this is the music that you play when you have company over to your house and you want to keep the air fresh with some background music. Maybe it's something a restaurant plays over the house PA. But it's just not the type of thing (in my mind) that someone puts on their mp3 player for regular use. Unfortunately, this music is also not the type of thing that can easily ensnare a listener enough so that he/she pays attention to the album's finer points, which are superb for the most part.
If you've come to read this review, it would appear that you are somewhat interested in Unknown Mortal Orchestra, so if you listen intently to the songs, you will find a wealth of interesting material. The best songs to start with would be "Can't Keep Checking My Phone," "The World Is Crowded," and "Necessary Evil."