The first album by Unknown Mortal Orchestra was exactly that: a first album—the creation of a fine band which had the pieces of a unique ‘60s psych-soul combination in front of it, yet could only construct the framework. Sometimes that yielded some impressively warped constructions, like “Strangers Are Strange” and “Boy Witch,” but otherwise came off as rabbity and muddled. There is absolutely no furtiveness to be found on the band’s follow-up, simply titled II. To extend the metaphor out a little further, UMO have completed construction, and the finished product is as curvy and modern and groovy as a Frank Gehry design.
Band leader Ruban Nielson wisely reined everything in on these 10 songs. Even at it’s spunkiest, the album constantly feels narcotized, as if coming through the smog of a fading AM radio transmission. The drums sound like they’ve been covered in sand, and Nielson’s vocals never gets above a conversational volume. Although the album was recorded digitally (onto Nielson’s laptop if his Twitter feed is to be believed), the band could have said it committed the record to tape on an old Tascam four-track recorder and no one would have questioned the results.
Most of all, Nielson has been touched by some kind of greatness when it comes to his songwriting on II. Every melody here has the kind of stickiness that pop bands would sell their collective souls for. Chief conspirator on this front is the album’s lead single “Swim And Sleep (Like a Shark),” driven by Nielson’s slinky guitar line and a vocal that takes on the bobbing spirit of the waves. And once “The Opposite of Afternoon” gets past its unnecessarily muffled opening section, it opens up on shuffling funk that lays deep in its comfortable pocket, letting Nielson do his best blue-eyed soul croon.
I spent a lot of time after listening to this album for the first time wondering what took me so long to accept Unknown Mortal Orchestra into my life. Granted, the first album left me a little cold, but with II, I have become a full-on convert, and absolutely can’t wait to hear what this trio does next. And I’ll have this album—already one of the best things to arrive in this young year—to keep me company while I wait.