Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Sex & Food
On their fourth album Sex & Food, Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO) return to their roots with mixed results. UMO is the brainchild of chief songwriter and instrumentalist Ruban Nielson, whose love of psychedelic pop and soul is tempered by some serious guitar chops and a penchant for experimentation. Their first two records saw UMO craft sharp psych rock/pop built around choppy vocal hooks and an array of ingenious little guitar lines and labyrinthine, jazz-inflected solos. Their third and breakthrough record Multi-Love bucked the trend, introducing some serious soul influences, sharper hooks, and more diverse instrumentation with keys and horns entering the mix.
With Sex & Food Ruban returns to his guitar roots – the songs here are all built on riffs and guitar lines. Thankfully Nielson is both a master technician and a man with refined taste. He knows when to coo and when to roar, and when he lets rip his dirty tones belie a technical wizardry on a par with Jeff Beck. A song like Hunnybee sees all these cogs in motion. It builds an irresistibly sugary groove with little more than some guitar slides and spare funk picking. Towards the end Ruben blasts out a grungy solo that encircles and threatens to takes you away. Major League Chemicals is built upon a fascinating series of guitar riffs – one a Hendrix-esque cacophony, the other a masterful transition between riffing and arpeggiated guitar lines. Johnny Marr would approve. The album’s most distinguishable track and certain future live favourite, American Guilt, spares all subtlety. A truly gargantuan piece, it boasts the best guitar riff I’ve heard all year.
UMO’s mastery doesn’t just lie with guitar riffs. Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays is the album’s unabashed pop triumph, a disco-y number and the perfect opportunity for Nielson’s vocal style to take proper flight. As he takes you through an array of funky stylistic changes, you can tell he’s having fun here, and your ears will too. On a more reserved note, Ministry of Alienation is a spacey number that works off the strength of its lyrics, bookending riffs, and an impromptu horn blast to finish.
The problem arises on the remaining songs on the album, with the limitations of UMO’s style becoming apparent in the album’s latter half. The intentionally lo-fi production style hasn’t changed much from previous releases and Nielson’s whispery, charming yet over-treated vocals really need strong hooks to carry them or else they risk sounding like croaky nothings. When the riffs don’t strike hard, the songwriting just isn’t strong enough to carry all the tracks here, with many of them floating through wispy ether. This Doomsday is little more than an exercise in English folky guitar arpeggios, and its meandering vocal melody feels like a hodgepodge of previous UMO hooks. How Many Zeros is impossible to remember and could have used more of the stop-start dynamics it only hinted at. Not in Love We’re Just High sees Ruban stretching his staccato vocal approach a bit too far for comfort over another tune that goes nowhere. If You’re Going to Break Yourself is a woozy number which suffers from its minimal instrumentation and build – a lazy ringing guitar is not enough to carry a track. All throughout, the lo-fi production is maintained to a tee, constricting the album’s stylistic scope to claustrophobic levels for those who want to some breathing room.
Overall the record boasts some excellent additions to the UMO core oeuvre, but the over-abundance of songs stretches the limits of the band’s current sound, and the lack of instrumental variety doesn’t help. Here’s hoping we see some more expansive production and experimentation going forward, from a band that obviously has a very deep well do dig from.