The first time I ever even heard of Unknown Mortal Orchestra was when they took the stage at King's Barcade in Raleigh a couple of years ago, right before the release of their debut album. They were opening for another, quite unremarkable, band who, in keeping with the Ethos of John, shall remain unnamed. The thing I remember most is wondering how in the world UMO was able to lace these psychedelic pop songs with some of the most incendiary guitar playing I'd ever seen live. This was about a week before they released their debut album. That turned out to be a really nice record. With the exception of a few songs (the wonderful "Nerve Damage" comes to mind), the production was a good deal more restrained than their live presence. Again, it was really good -- the songs stand on their own -- but a little more investment by the listener eventually would yield a trove of subtly beautiful and really difficult guitar playing pushing everything along.
Of course, that's far from the first time I've had that feeling. The early Meat Puppets shows back in the 80s were sonic immolations, whereas their albums (I'm thinking circa II through about Huevos), were exercises in restraint (jazzy, groovy restraint, to be sure, but restraint nonetheless). Still, I loved those albums just the way they were.
The new UMO album, II, released this week on the estimable Jagjaguwar label, follows the Meat Puppets template in more than just the numeric titling thing and the guitar/bass/drums trio thing. UMO's guitarist/vocalist, Ruban Nielsen, like his MP counterpart Curt Kirkwood, writes songs with super-indulgent guitar parts, but then use the production process so as to avoid smacking you in the face with them. And that doesn't mean the songs don't rock out, for example:
As good as the first album was, I see this one as quite an improvement. The rhythm section still occupies a back corner of the production, but the effect is warm and inviting. Check out the bass work by Jacob Portrait on the brilliant "Faded in the Morning".
At times on this album, you'll feel like you're listening to a 70s soul band, and then at other times it evokes the old music of Prince. At all times though, you know you're listening to surpassingly talented musicians. You need to own this strangely wonderful record, and it goes without saying that you shouldn't miss them when they play your town.
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