Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II
by Nick Hugon (International Affairs), published February 12th 2013
Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!
Unknown Mortal Orchestra vocalist Ruban Nielson is next in a long line of indie frontmen whose larynxes are the only waifish obstacles standing between their band’s pop-chart anonymity and stardom. Maybe that sounds a bit harsh: Nielson isn’t terrible, he’s just weak. And while that’s certainly not his fault, I can’t help but feel that UMO’s second album truly suffers when Nielson’s whimpering collides with his considerably engaging songwriting.
I get the feeling Nielson knows it, too. UMO’s trademark is their buzzy distortion, which neatly hides Nielson’s precariously perched vocal melodies in a hazy, harmonic cacophony (I’m seriously starting to get the feeling ‘lo-fi’ is just a nice way of saying “can’t sing/play my instrument but don’t worry about it”). Fortunately for Nielson, when his trick (so eagerly supported by the all-inclusive indie fam) works, the result is pretty pleasant. UMO are at their best when Nielson steps away from the spotlight and falls into a fuller-voiced harmony that has enough muscle behind it to hang with UMO’s aggressive instrumentation.
That instrumentation, however, is perhaps the great, paradoxical undoing of II. Nielson’s guitar work is exemplary, and completely at home next to his impressive bandmates, bassist Jake Portrait and drummer Gregory Rogove. Instrumentally, the album can ebb and flow from the tight amble of “So Good At Being In Trouble” to something that can sound, for better or worse, like it could have been ripped from a Need for Speed soundtrack (“No Need For A Leader”). But the technical ability Nielson and his peers display on the album completely unmasks Nielson’s vocal vulnerability. On “So Good At Being In Trouble” and elsewhere, Nielson’s prominence doesn’t so much sound like the kind of harrowing vulnerability that lastingly impacts. Instead, he sounds like he’s whispering through his high school talent show performance—thoroughly unwrapped and out of place, in this case hovering above II‘s driven instrumentals.
Still, while the album shows a band that may not have outgrown its infancy, II displays Unknown Mortal Orchestra as having great potential, if not great ability to follow through. “So Good At Being In Trouble” is ferociously catchy, and on “One At A Time,” Nielson’s whimper transforms into more of a searing whine that at least emotes in a way his hollower moments can’t. II is, after all, UMO’s second album, and it shows a band that’s growing, sound thoroughly unperfected, into a competitive name.
Recommended Tracks: So Good At Being In Trouble, One At A Time