Album Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra, “II”

Unknown Mortal Orchestra - II

I just cannot comprehend modern music production values. If artists aren’t compressing their records into oblivion or fighting yet another loudness war, they’re obscuring perfectly good music behind a self-consciously lo-fi haze. This is my biggest beef with New Zealand-via-Portland trio Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s otherwise excellent second album, II (2013): it sounds like it was captured on a cheap cassette recorder in the room next door to where the band was actually playing.

In the context of bandleader Ruben Nielson’s pithy, idiosyncratic lyrics on themes of loneliness and isolation, II’s insular production makes sense. “I’m so lonely, but I can never quite reach the phone,” Nielson sings on album opener “From the Sun.” In a state like that, he can hardly be expected to be able to reach the dials on a recording console. But II’ sonic muddle robs Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s retro-modern psychedelic rock of definition; songs blur together, not for lack of compositional individuality but for sheer lack of clarity. This is especially problematic for Riley Gear’s drum work, which all but disappears from the mix in places, and for Nielson’s vocals, which are frequently rendered unintelligible.

The real shame is that I have nothing but good things to say about Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s actual music. There’s a marked indie guitar pop vibe in places – “Swim & Sleep (Like a Shark)” and “The Opposite of Afternoon” occasion comparisons to the Shins, for instance. But songs like the funky, wah-wah-laden “One More Time” and the soulful “So Good at Being in Trouble” reminded me most of Motown in the early 1970s, when the label injected more bracing psychedelic rock and funk elements into its signature sound. Only the bluesy, meandering “Monki” overreaches.

If I could get my hands on the raw tapes and master II myself, I might end up with one of my favorite albums of 2013, an inventive, exciting elaboration on the band’s inventive, exciting, and equally muffled 2011 debut. As things stand, “No question what I’ll have to pay for my apathy” (“No Need for a Leader”) – namely, a decent-sounding record. And so I’m left waiting to see Unknown Mortal Orchestra in concert, where I can only hope that these fine songs will be set free from their lo-fi shackles and given the breathing room they deserve.


Buy it here. Spotify it here.

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