You’ve GOT to Hear This: “II”

IIII by Unknown Mortal OrchestraAfter their terrific self-titled first album, Unknown Mortal Orchestra (also known as UMO), the band’s much anticipated second album is simply named II. Don’t let the seemingly obscure artwork and album titles fool you, though. If anything, judging a book by its cover here is not possible, because UMO oozes mystery until you press play.

Compared to their first record, II contains more mellow tracks, but doesn’t steer from the band’s unique sound. For new listeners, it might sound like you’re swimming in honey, but that’s the nature of frontman Ruban Nielson’s vocals and the swift combination of each band member’s part. The first track on the album, From The Sun, has distinct electric guitar picking as a soft introduction, but picks up halfway to some percussion and bass accompaniment. Two thirds into the song, the vocals leave us, and they do leave us wondering what’s next as the guitar picking returns.

Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark) is the album’s first single, and no doubt a lot of fans of UMO will enjoy the song in its position as the second track. It’s a song that is best described as a classic rock piece, and from here we can see where the album might take us in its more upbeat parts. Lyrically, this song is dreamy, but could be seen as slightly morbid. We welcome the electric guitar picking again in this song, and there’s no doubt that the band have chosen to make it a feature in this album.

So Good At Being In Trouble is one of my personal favourites on the album. It’s one you can sing along to, slowly dance to, and tap your foot to. Very reminiscent of the sixties, and is proof that UMO does very well with more mellow songs. Bassist Jacob Portrait has a more prominent role in this song, while we hear Ruban focus on his vocals more so than his guitar-playing. This song seems more full-length with a more distinct verse-chorus-verse structure.

Again, the next track One At A Time is more upbeat, and ends abruptly, which keeps us guessing how the rest of the album will sound. Not everyone likes surprises – but given the band’s initial mystery when they released their first hit Ffunny Ffrends in 2010 – we can only expect them to keep surprising us. At this point, a lot of the tracks on the album change dramatically from start to finish. If there is anything UMO is good at, it’s song development. Just as a character develops in a novel, the same can be said about a number of the tracks on this album.

One can choose to take a more lyrical viewpoint on the album, but it still remains mysterious. What is there to say about the songs without talking about the music? When you can say that about an album, you know that you’ve been hit by good music.

The latter half of the album becomes more unpredictable as we pass the halfway point, The Opposite Of Afternoon almost dividing the album into two clear components with its fading end. No Need For A Leader brings back memories of Led Zeppelin and introduces hints of garage rock, with a darker side expressed: “something wicked this way comes”.

Monki starts off deep and slow, like journeying through a thick forest. This is a perfect example of UMO’s song development, where the verse perfectly draws into a brighter chorus before drawing back down into yet another dark verse. As one of the longest tracks on the album, it stands out very well, but not for its length.

Perhaps at this point we have grasped an idea of the full potential of this band, but at the same time, have a few things to criticise about the number of songs that fade out to end. With such textured and layered sound, surely the band have thought of bringing one song into another with something less (or more, depending on which way you look at it) rudimentary?

Dawn, a short instrumental track, leaves us thinking we’re starting the album all over again, or at least entering what could be a third chapter, before jumping right into the heavier Faded In The Morning.

The final track, Secret Xtians, title alone, reminds us of the unusual spelling of some of UMO’s tracks from their first album. Musically, it starts off sounding very grunge and reminiscent of Nirvana, but the remainder of the song will take you back to the Beatles, vocally and musically, particularly with the bass guitar.

The great thing about II by Unknown Mortal Orchestra is that you can listen to the tracks in just about any order, and it’ll still take you on the same journey. It’s a lovely album that ends almost quietly – you’ll hardly notice. If you love the band, you’ll go right back into playing the rest of their music that you know, and you’ll barely notice. II is a versatile album in that you can play the tracks in any order, over and over, push it between two heavy metal tracks, and you’ll almost forgot the time that passed while it played. In that way, it’s magical, but it leaves you at the same point you began. A little bit lost. And the band? Still mysterious and full of surprises.

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Georgie Celestine

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