Album Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II


One of the most captivating lines of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides happens when the choir of neighborhood boys narrating the tale describe their mysterious and strangely beautiful neighbor, Cecilia Lisbon. While stumbling upon her secret diary, rife with nonsensical musings and disembodied drawings of dying oak trees, one of the boys blurts out: “What we have here is a dreamer. Someone completely out of touch with reality. When she jumped, she probably thought she would fly.”

The boys are tragically referring to Cecilia’s untimely death, which rocks the neighborhood when she soars through a bedroom window like the bird she was meant to be. Hedging the haziness of idle summer afternoons through song are New Zealand by-way-of Portland psych-crooners Unknown Mortal Orchestra. They’re dreamers to the core, and the trio’s latest, II, is a tale through a distorted kaleidoscopic lens worthy of Eugenides’ prose.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s mystique, like that of the boys’ muse Cecilia, lies in the uncertainty of their aesthetic. What kind of band are they exactly? Not accessible enough to be mainstream indie pop, yet the head-shakers and foot-stompers are there. The musty sensibilities of old-time psychedelic rock bands, Strawberry Alarm Clock and kraut-rockers like Amon Düül alike, firmly entrench themselves underneath the ramblings. And still, the penchant for the soulful stylings of falsetto vocalists finds its way into the mix through jams like “So Good at Being in Trouble”, handsomely jangling along a sea of acerbic wisdom, which wafts above the surface if you listen for it closely enough.

As a follow-up album, II is a more graphic extension of 2011‘s Unknown Mortal Orchestra, textured with psychedelic visions of sharks, swerving guitar lines, and swooning vocals — but dangerously toes the line of being too imitative of its predecessor. The tracks on II continue to be singed with a certain nervy basement-jam resonance, thanks to the band’s songwriting mastermind, Ruban Nielson (formerly of The Mint Chicks). With the accompaniment of bassist Jake Portrait and drummer Riley Geare, the trio carefully extracts the psychedelia from their self-titled debut with a dropper, injecting generous sums into the ear.

Admittedly II is less punch-drunk from the get-go than the trio’s debut — arresting, yet not as memorable. Gentle strums hum like distant yellowed memories with the album’s opener “From the Sun”, which sees harmonies trickle with honey and grime as Nielson croons to a lover that he’ll “put a gun in your hand.” Nielson’s lyrics on II glimmer with a faded light, sunny yet stripped-down. Each layer becomes increasingly sinister through guitar lines warbled like demented bird songs.

The familiar fuzz of Unknown Mortal Orchestra is alive and throbbing with “One at a Time”, a funk-infused noise jam with a chorus that could very well be deemed anthemic. “The Opposite of Afternoon” reverberates with a soul that’s inevitably Britpop, before descending into an ambient abyss as the track fades into “No Need for a Leader”, strutting with iron boots, leather jacket, and cigarette in hand. Here Jake Portrait’s bass steals the spotlight, a welcome rearrangement from the guitars traditionally stealing center stage.

The latter half of II delves into the experimental stylings, where the band’s sensibilities lay in the manipulation of melodies. The instrumental “Dawn” rises with roaring keys emulating shoegaze stylings like that of the recently reinvigorated My Bloody Valentine, while “Faded in the Morning” features skittering percussion to back an overall golden pop gem. “Secret Xtians” dissolves with grace as the album’s closer, a cyclical finish as delicate as the opener “Former Sun” that leaves the listener with a satisfied sense of completion.

While II doesn’t kick around quite the same as its predecessor, it makes up for that with subtleties. Listening feels the way that late summer afternoon-lull warms the skin on your back as you watch birds, or dreamers, flying into uncharted azure skies. It’s nice.

Essential Tracks: “From the Sun”, “No Need for a Leader”

Ed. This article originally ran incorrectly stating that the band was from Australia. It has been amended to accurately reflect the band is from New Zealand by-way-of Portland.