Unknown Mortal Orchestra has released one of the best albums of the year so far in II, released tomorrow on the stalwart Jagjaguwar label. As someone who enjoys listening to divergent and sometimes challenging music, some of my favorite records often cross genres, push boundaries, or subvert production standards. Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s lo-fi, funky, psychedelic pop could easily be called difficult to pigeonhole, but one of the most successful aspects of their record lies in its listenability and instant likability.
The triumvirate of the first three tracks, which rule the record, are simply breathtaking. On opener “From the Sun,” Lovely arpeggios and hooky melodies clash with the darkness of lines like “Isolation can put a gun in your hand,” epitomizing the kind of grim and beautiful juxtaposition on which indie rock is built. The whole song—from the quick, fuzzy electric strums to the vocals to the peaceful crooning about firearms—recalls White Album-era Beatles. Still, the track remains their own, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra loses those faint hints that draw them back into the modes of forefathers as they define themselves emphatically with follow-up (and first single) “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” and the bluesy soul of “So Good at Being in Trouble.” The latter of those two tracks is so completely phenomenal that I feel reduced to teengirl raving when I try to write about it. My God! With nuanced melodic shifts within the verses, the long, meandering descent of the chorus line, the trebly guitar notes that climb and fall, this is easily one of the best tracks on the album.
Beyond these first three tracks, UMO begins to show off surprising new facets of themselves in the funky growl of “One at a time,” which wears a T-Rex influence on its sleeve, and the super-compressed 70s rock tune “No Need For A Leader.” The epic, over-7-minute track “Monki” necessitates mentioning, and the 70s soul on which it’s built is enjoyable enough, but I have to say I’m not completely sure about why it must be quite so long. II closes on another pair of psych-leaning 70s rock tunes, going out with reverby notes and strums as the album fades.
While II clearly invokes elements of the Beatles, as its songs balance between pretty pop and dirty 70s rock, the album also recalls other great bands such as Big Star. What’s for sure is that there’s no one that sounds quite like Unknown Mortal Orchestra right now. The band has produced an outstanding sophomore album that affects listeners at once and draws them back for more.