Ruban Nielson’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra is poised to make a big splash with II, the appropriately titled follow-up to his 2011 self-titled. Nielson’s UMO twitter bio describes the project as “psychedelic R&B,” a tag that seems more and more apt the more time you spend with II blaring through your headphones.
Sonic markers abound for UMO: Nuggets comp psychedelia and garage-rock, classic soul, Ariel Pink’s more coherent moments. However, for me, what really elevates Nielson’s project above the ranks of other retro-worshippers is his repeated tasteful and intricate guitar parts. “Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark)” is carried along by an evocative, meandering guitar melody that morphs through a series of major/minor modulations on the instrumental bridge just as you think you’ve got it pinned. Album standout and sing-along “So Good At Being In Trouble” also changes keys a handful of times before the heavenly simplicity of its restrained chorus. On the other hand, “No Need For A Leader” and “Faded In the Morning” prove that Nielson can rock with monster riffs that you can picture pizza-faced 14 year-olds working over in a dimly lit, ceiling-flagged basement.
The pacing and sequencing of II is also highly intuitive. For example, after the old-school head-banging of the aforementioned “No Need For A Leader,” Nielson leads us into “Monki,” a psychedelic slow-burner featuring a soulful chorus with his guitar lead and vocal taking the same powerful melodic line. “Dawn,” a minute long instrumental drone, follows this and refocuses us for the record’s final leg. The album ends on the delightful acoustic-led “Secret Xtians,” which, not undeservedly, could pass as a newly surfaced McCartney Ram-era outtake. The 54-second guitar coda that ends this final track is perhaps the most beautiful playing on a record full of it. It’s slightly jazz-inflected without being flashy, and it doubles as highly addictive aural candy.