Living in hipster capital, Portland, Oregon, Unknown Mortal Orchestra are the latest in the wave of neo-psychedelic indie bands, who mix soulful vocals with the kind of kaleidoscopic fare that gave Aussie rockers Tame Impala their leg up last year. Basically the set text here is The Beatles ‘Revolver’ but heard through the prism of the kind of kid who grew up vegan and wears jumpers even Kurt Cobain would have considered uncool.
New Zealand-born main-man Ruban Nielson delivers ‘So Good at Being in Trouble’s lyrical hook ‘so good at being in trouble / so bad at being in love’ with just the right mix of innocence and world-weariness, whilst first single, ‘Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)’ could be their breakthrough moment, matching Nielson’s sweetest vocal to hazy curling riffs that evoke a warm Californian evening. The dreams that creep through his unconsciousness seem to be a recurring theme on ‘II’ and with its imagery of drifting away on the sea they find their most impressive outlet here.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra are a band free-wheeling enough to have signed their record deal on a bar napkin and the obvious comparisons in terms of the groups aesthetic would be to Ariel Pink or Animal Collective, though Nielson’s songwriting is more conventional than either of them. ‘The Opposite of Afternoon’ could easily have sat on ‘Lonerism’ or Avi Buffalo’s superior self-titled album, with its choppy riff and swirling vocals whereas ‘No Need for a Leader’ comes the closest to replicating a true vision of the sixties with a propulsive Jefferson Airplane bassline and relentless forward momentum. ‘One at a Time’ goes for a groovy, Sly Stone psych-funk before opening out into another big Beatles-y chorus, some frantic drum fills and a surprise horn line.
The weakness of the band’s 2011 debut was that it’s dazed and confused attitude bled over into the production, mistaking muddiness for lo-fi authenticity. On ‘II’ you can hear fingers sliding on the fretboard on ‘From the Sun’ but generally the band makes it feel intimate rather than messy here. After track six the record threatens to sprawls languorously, with little in the way of memorable hooks or lyrics, though Jacob Portrait’s basslines give them a tense, almost dubby feel. The lengthy ‘Monki’ tips it’s hat to Love in its sprawling but ultimately dull attempt at symphonic psychedelia and its left to the rhythm section to save ‘Faded in the Morning’ once more.
There are interesting ideas here but only a little in the way of real gratification. If Lennon, McCartney and co were gods, it seems as if Unknown Mortal Orchestra are sentenced to the purgatory of inertia.