“I wish I could swim and sleep like a shark does …”, pines Unknown Mortal Orchestra front man Ruban Nielsen on lead single ‘Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)’, ‘… I’d fall to the bottom and hide till the end of time’. Imagine exactly that image and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the atmosphere the band is going for on their sophomore album: Nielsen suspended in a semi-hallucinatory state of head-busting loneliness and despair, floating slowly down towards the watery abyss. Of course, his friends are there to soundtrack his hippy trip deep into the depths of the briny, and of course, that takes the form of classic 60s psychedelia, complete with bold, abrasive guitar hooks, squelchy effects and wobbly, wammified refrain.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra first revealed itself in 2011 with a self-titled debut LP which brought to life much of the mystery and illusion Nielsen had created by maintaining a microscopic public profile up to that point. The record was full of the nostalgia that characterised the track ‘Ffunny Ffrends’ which had given the band its first real exposure back in the spring of 2010, but also maintained an alien, other-worldly quality which saved it from the dangerous territory of aimless pastiche.
It’s a major disappointment then that on II, the band wanders deep into pastiche-ville, gets lost pretty quickly and ends up lolloping around in a maze of LSD and tie-die t-shirts while the local sheriff fires ‘cool vibes’ at them from his candy cane shotgun. There’s just way too many psych-rock clichés on this record, to the point where they overwhelm and subsume any original ideas the band may or may not have had.
II is broader and more expansive than Unknown Mortal Orchestra, but basically pretty similar, as if they’ve simply ironed over the creases and folds that gave their debut real character. What remains is a pretty straight-forward collection of meandering tunes that dabble in similar sounds but ultimately disappoint. Because their first record had that oddness, that essence of the extra-terrestrial, it compensated for, indeed complimented the band’s slightly aloof soullessness, but now they’ve stripped those layers away in an attempt to be more humane, more intimate; all those frailties are exposed and that air of mysterious ‘cool’ dissipates. It’s like seeing a once-revered school friend twenty years later, but finding that he stills lives with his parents and spends his Tuesday afternoons shooting pidgeons from his bedroom window while listening to Marilyn Manson.
To give the band due credit, there are a few ideas on II which pricked my ears. The typical track on this record will start with a crunching guitar riff and a snappy drum beat, and there are a handful of catchy moments of this kind. On ‘Opposite of Afternoon’ a jaunty guitar line wriggles and unwinds over Nielsen’s hushed, submarine vocals, while on ‘No Need For a Leader’ the rumbling rock riff is complimented by a nasally, buzz-saw guitar sound, quite distinctly comparable to a distressed Noddy Holder fleeing a swarm of angry bees. The standout moment is certainly ‘So Good at Being in Trouble’. This is easily the most innovative and well-executed track on the record, a soulful slow-jam with a really catchy falsetto vocal hook from Nielsen, who lyrically picks up the common thread of isolation which runs through the album: “It’s a long, sad, lonely time … memories, they mess with my mind.”
A common stumbling block however, is the sense that the band struggle to know what to do with the bare bones of a track. They’ll be happily playing along for the first two minutes and then suddenly get stuck. Tracks like ‘Monki’ and ‘Faded in the Morning’ lay the foundations before getting lost in a meandering middle-eight where the bass goes walkabout and Nielsen ends up noodling an uncomfortable guitar solo just to fill the space. When it seems that the track is going off the rails, it just slowly fades out, as if turning the volume down gradually will cover the blunder. Instead of masking it, the fact that so many of the tracks here are allowed to die a slow death only reinforces the perception that the band is short on innovation.
Frustration is the overriding sensation with this album. Unknown Mortal Orchestra are operating in a hugely popular field and their sun-soaked psych-rock nostalgia should be pressing all the buttons, but their lack of purpose and driving force means they continue to dither in the realms of fandom.
… Jack is listening to Minutemen – ‘Double Nickels on the Dime’