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Album Review | Unknown Mortal Orchestra's II

In the spring of 2010, the song “Ffunny Ffrends” was posted to Bandcamp under the mysterious moniker Unknown Mortal Orchestra. There was nothing on the site that revealed who or what was behind the project. Even as bloggers began hyping up the track, no one took credit. An online hunt began for the artist behind the veil of UMO, but nothing surfaced until Ruban Nielson, formerly of the brother duo the Mint Chicks, stepped forward to claim “Ffunny Ffrends” as his. A bidding war began for Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s full debut, and in the end Fat Possum Records secured a deal. Nielson originally recorded everything himself, but filled out the band with bassist Jake Portrait and Julian Ehrlich on drums. After the release of the self-titled debut and a few world tours with acts ranging from Toro Y Moi to Grizzly Bear to Dirty Projectors and more, UMO is back with their second album, II. Armed with a host of fresh instruments and effects, new drummer Riley Geare, and a spot on the Jagjaguwar label (Bon Iver, Sharon Van Etten), will Unknown Mortal Orchestra survive the sophomore slump?

The short version of the story is yes. You can rest easy, UMO devotees. The long version is filled with nitpicky quips, emphasis on subtle intricacies, and cheesy, but heartfelt similes and metaphors. So without further adieu, allow me to dive into Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s II.

Following the true and tested formula of the previous album, the two strongest and crowd-pleasing songs are located right out of the starting gate. “From the Sun” and the first single “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” start this album out on the right foot. Ruban Nielson is an underrated guitarist and he wastes no time trying to sway you to his cheering section with some impressive acoustic noodling during the intro of “From the Sun.” After you’re finished admiring his guitar work, prepare to bob and sway to one of the groovier riffs of 2013. The track seems like a spiritual successor to “Ffunny Ffrends,” but unlike UMO’s most popular tune, the drums are not sampled, but rather performed by Geare. A subtle change for new fans, but it’s a noticeable improvement .

Following the lead track is “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark).” By now, if you’re familiar with the band, you probably checked this one out. It’s been floating around since the band’s tour with Grizzly Bear back in the early fall. Like the title suggests, the song feels like a summer day spent lying in the ocean and letting the waves toss you about without a care in the world. Please note the sincerity in my poetic devices.

Other highlights from the album include “Faded in the Morning” and “No Need for a Leader.” Unknown Mortal Orchestra is definitely one of those bands that you wouldn’t expect to be as good as they are in concert, and these tracks will for sure become staples in the live performance. Every time I’ve seen UMO, they’ve upstaged and outplayed the headlining act. These two jams will only help them as they embark on their huge headlining tour in support of II.

Like most albums out there, UMO’s second endeavor does have some flaws and low points. There’s a slight wave of plainness between “Swim and Sleep” and “No Need for a Leader” that act as speed bumps to the otherwise excellent start of the album. There’s nothing bad about these songs, they’re just not as unique or strong as the other tracks. However, I do think new fans of the band will like these songs. They’re more accessible than some of the more adventurous, borderline experimental songs of the first album like “Boy Witch” and “Nerve Damage!” which can be off-putting at first to those with sensitive musical tastes.

So Unknown Mortal Orchestra survives the sophomore slump without any major bumps or bruises. It’s a good thing, too, because these guys are a band to watch in 2013. Overall, II is a solid follow up to an excellent debut that was difficult to top. UMO is surely poised to make a run at the upper echelon of the indie music world with a great new album and extensive tour schedule that will hopefully include a few major festival performances this summer. Here’s to II leading to III, IV, and beyond!

Check out the new video for “So Good at Being in Trouble” starring Chris Mintz-Plasse (a.k.a. McLovin from Superbad) and visit the band’s website.

Director of Digital | Radio Milwaukee