Enough of the flower, let’s just cut to the bud: this the second album from a band that’s always lived life on Mars. At least this time, it chose a cover to reflect it. The record jacket should rust the hand that traces over it, fingers wondering how it could glow so bright for a colour scheme that’s so mute. A pagan picture bleached in Martian hues, a wiccan image of devotion soaked in eerie red of the blackroom. This cover was exposed and in its damaged state, it’s proven better than any normal picture of a sword-witch poised for battle in nothing more than a see-through gown.
All told, it’s a better visual aid to a rush of blood to the head than A Rush of Blood to the Head. At the very, least it seems for a band which dabbled in cyan and steel last long-player, this record would be all draped in blood-orange. I reckon if I had been thrown back into the rock n’ roll routine with such a sudden feeling of ejection, that I too would be seeing shades of scarlet.
Life for Nielson before the debut was a leisurely flight, a hobby voyage. But II sounds like he’s trying to land safely with a damaged parachute. This does not sound like a pleasant trip. We may have been too carried away last record not to notice that the now-known Mortal behind the Orchestra didn’t particularly enjoy being high as a kite on a mountainside all the time. Perhaps we forgot why it’s called a daytrip and why we take them. Abnormal days require special cool-down times.
But even I will admit, two-years is a quite pedestrian interval between records. It also an unspoken industry standard broken very rarely by the very ambitious or unusually rambunctious. However, this was still the band that revealed me to a modern psychedelic dream wider and better than any best-of 2015 meme and for God’s sake, it was released 2013 and the Australian New Zealand Artists Corp (ANZAC) invasion was already in full swing; the chromatic bullets already fired in full rainbow spray. Kevin Parker was producing albums, Pond was backing him and the very ambitious King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard was dreaming them by the dozen. My Eskimo Joes and Powderfingers and Crowded Houses of pop-rock were gone and replaced. Tame Impala and Unknown Mortal Orchestra now stood in their space.
“How is it even possible that UMO would be a one-hit wonder?” was a sticky question in my head. And thank the bespectacled heavens II proved that they are so wonderfully not. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to the Beatles and use them as reasons for why a band isn’t great, harder still is not to compare UMO to Tame Impala. Because what sounds more alike to bands sonically linked to the Beatles? Other bands sonically linked to the Beatles. What’s great in this obvious arena however is that Tame Impala and UMO are not sonically linked in the same sense. What’s even better? I don’t hear as much of the Beatles anymore.
No, this record ran with away with the 13th Floor Elevators, Love, Rick Wright and Syd Barrett after a morning coffee. Everything is so pleasingly deeper cut into the dense genre of psychedelia. Because even when tripping, there’s still concrete pavement and brick walls that get dug into, drilled and jackhammered, mined for the detritus. And sometimes there are basement walls that just need staring at. Why?
“Well, do I really need to answer that question, officer?”
Mercifully, the police are not at my house, so, I can keep staring at this wall in peace.
“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to noodle on my guitar and make some funny noises, thank you very much.”
Such is the brain space I imagine Ruban Nielson entered when making this record. Yeah, he ran off with the 13th Floor Elevators, Love, Rick Wright and a now-zonked Syd Barrett. But he still took a James Taylor album too, just to make sure he wouldn’t get locked out the ward for being too insane. That’d be crazy. Because for all the dense mind-fuckery this album plays on its Side 2, the butter-soft tone and smooth-spread vocals on a healthy dose of these tracks is something that should be believed. “From The Sun,” “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark),” and “So Good At Being in Trouble” revel in their selected range. They noodle, they whisper, they dawdle, they bop and they pop. Nielson opens the record like the little green man in your crystalline fruit of Amazonia. “It’s going to be ok,” he whispers in your ear before whizzing with a jet and a: “just take my hand and come with meeeeeeeeeeeeee” before this little green Martian apparates you to the next cut.
“So Good At Being Trouble” itself is proof that the dance-standard of simple choruses and meticulous repetition makes for a track relatable no matter the context. It’s pop and it’s doesn’t give a damn. You can actually hear Nielson sing! And what lines to chant in summer anthem:
So good at being in trouble
So bad at being in love
To be blunt, I’m just thankful I can hear the bastard. Last time, I could barely hear shit. But it wasn’t until this fourth or fifth spin with tiny-Tim the alien that I realized had Ray Davies curls in his hair and this was not any proto-punk Kink long-player—there’s a soft-record to stay true to!—rather, the whole damn product reminds me of a Sixties “Sunny Afternoon.” The guitars are simple, mayhap even mistaken for acoustic, and the vocals talk you through a tale of recent drunkenness and misery. Percussion is a convenience, maybe you’ll hear it, maybe you won’t. But what you will hear is Nielson all wrapped in a catchy gloom, a mental illness that is hooked and contagious.
To say that one cut defines a whole album by a completely different band is to lay it on thick, however. There’s too much bonechewing guitar on this record to dismiss it as “mellow” or “dense.” Certainly, it is those things, but it’s not an Animal Collective album, which plays like a repeating hard-drive click of death, constantly stabbing itself in time and in oscillation with such calmness for such calamity. Both “The Opposite of Afternoon” and “No Need for a Leader” feature something that is so often missed in a pop-psych record: the jam.
Even when Nielson is too enamoured with a saucerful of secret guitar-wahs and -drips on “Monki,” slowing down the album to a crawl, he’s still taking the music seriously; he’s looking for a psychedelic record that only he can make. His music may look at concrete and granite for seven minutes, but it isn’t a rock-hard stale piece of bread, and definitely sees some stars. I may lay down to it, but I won’t nap to it. Not as hard I’ve napped to Beach House, at least. No, “Monki” is a psychedelic tangent that needed to happen as a bridge between “The Opposite of Afternoon” and “No Need for a Leader,” not as some third harrowing trial of the soul.
Thankfully “Dawn” cures the crawl before launching us into “Faded in the Morning.” If one thing has remained a constant through Nielson’s travail, it is that low-key funk-bass. How it grooves to this entire album just as well as the debut before shaking off the veil and jamming with no mercy but a fade towards “Secret Xtians” is just delightful but I must ask why this outro of all outros couldn’t be extended? I must ask! It had all the makings of a Prince rhythm ready to take us on an extended ride! Damnit!
Nay, we must come full circle. Back to that blooming acoustic noodle that began at “From the Sun.” The bass is still fresh though and raring to go and it plods a plot like a champion gardener. It’s just a shame the album had to end just when Nielson was putting the patches back together rather than just gawking at one corner with a bit of dribble. Then again, somehow watching this intense high-noon staredown of anything and everything mundane, like garden plots or basement walls, was fulfilling as fuck.
Because he’s not just staring at the pores in his bunker, he’s studying the sanctuary-turned-sanctified-hell the walls come to represent as his mind. This record was a retreat from the rock lifestyle, an examination of the isolation that he yearns for yet slowly kills him too. I was about to write this is what “true artistry” looks like, but let’s be honest. It’s just talent and for the good us all, he’s able to flex it and for the love of music I’m able to enjoy it.
I’m able to enjoy how he encodes himself in art, puts it on wax and lets us buy it for many a spin. It’s an invitation to a headspace and it’s records like these why I enjoy writing about music, even when the music isn’t exactly my card and bouquet.
Album Artist: UMO
Producer: Ruban Nielson
Genre: Indie rock, psychedelic rock
- “From The Sun”
- “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)”
- “So Good At Being in Trouble”
- “One at a Time”
- “The Opposite of Afternoon”
- “No Need for a Leader”
- “Faded in the Morning”
- “Secret Xtians”