Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Unknown Mortal Orchestra S/T, 180G Black Vinyl LP
Perhaps we'd all be better off if it was always "all about the music, man." But until recently, most discussion of Unknown Mortal Orchestra understandably went from lauding the unshakeable hooks of "Ffunny Ffriends" and "How Can You Luv Me?" to wondering why, true to their name, they remained anonymous. Protracted mystery can cause as much skepticism as the most overt press blitz, and information had been scarce since they popped up last year with a Bandcamp page of intriguing and untraceable songs. Some time after, those songs started being performed live by human beings who do mundane things like wear Baja drug rugs, live in Portland, and maintain an active Twitter feed. But there's still something eerily extraterrestrial about their debut LP, as if it were something that fell from the sky completely intact. You wonder if it might be an artifact from some psych-rock acid casualty, a long-forgotten Kiwi-popper, or an Elephant 6 offshoot. You want to poke at it, prod it, and try to carbon date it.
None of the ambiguity would matter if UMO didn't spring to life from the first happily bopping seconds of "Ffunny Ffriends" and provide a half hour of rich analog sizzle that extends far beyond its meager recording budget (seriously, try and find it on vinyl, if possible). Though obviously more camera shy than Sleigh Bells or Cults, UMO represents a similar merger of simple and catchy melodies lovingly marooned in a raw, buzzcut production that puts an emphasis on the beats. The major difference for UMO is that their grit radiates from the inside out. Funk too often comes off as a jittery affectation or genre exercise even for rock bands who are pretty good at it. But for bandleader Ruban Nielson, it feels like a natural songwriting mode. The tortured but deceptively joyous hook from "How Can You Luv Me?" does plenty to draw you in, to the point where it might take the fifth listen to focus on just how limber the rhythm section is. It's hardly alone in sounding like a readymade breakbeat, so it's not surprising that the cratedigging likes of El-P, ?uestlove, and Das Racist have all taken to tweeting UMO's praises.
But the sound wouldn't matter without songwriting. When a singer gets praised for incorporating his or her voice like another instrument in the mix, it's usually a reference to texture. And while Nielson often works in an androgynous, bristling tone that's certainly ingratiating on its own merits, it's more remarkable for its sophisticated approach to melody. Whether gripping the thrilling hairpin turns of "Bicycle", arranging complex lattices of syncopation on "Thought Ballune", or simply doubling down on his own leads on "Ffunny Ffriends", he converses with the inventive guitar playing like he's making a sales pitch. The riffs tell you what you're gonna hear, the vocals respond, and they link up in a way that makes everything so welcoming and familiar by the middle of the song itself. Combined with an expert use of space rare for such a lo-fi record, UMO manages a unique immersive and psychedelic quality without relying on the usual array of bong-ripping effects. -Pitchfork