Unknown Mortal Orchestra's patchwork psych-rock gets mixed results on a new record. Info
New Zealand-born and Portland, Oregon-based musician Ruban Nielson continues has led his band Unknown Mortal Orchestra through ever-rotating combinations of pop, R&B and guitar-centric rock and roll. While 2016's Multi-Love was a pop-dance record, and UMO's self-titled 2011 debut album and 2013's II efforts were straight up neo-psychedelic rock, this year's Sex & Food splits the difference between these disparate influences. Whether it does so successfully can change from song to song. Lead single "Hunnybee," is the best song UMO has written in years, with precise violin-esque guitar sliding, immaculate production and a crisp chorus that sticks in your head for days (in a good way), and manages to juggle the dancy expectations of the band's newer fans while throwing a bone to their old '60s-rock crowd.
On the other side of the album's diverse spectrum of sounds, another single, "American Guilt," is like a discarded Jack White B-side, with a vague political theme about the U.S. coming to terms with the trauma it has caused, including in Vietnam, where the song was recorded. The chorus, "Here comes the American guilt," stated with the aplomb of a scientist in a monster movie, comes off as corny when paired with the song's hyper-distorted and rather boring blues riffs. Nielson said in a recent KEXP interview that he wanted Sex & Food to sound fractured, like our political landscape (get it?!) which is less a sufficient commentary and more of a simple recapitulation of a problem anyone who reads the news (even fake news) already understands pretty well.
Fortunately, those who are disappointed by UMO's genre-hopping can always look forward to the live shows, where the songs dynamically evolve into new, fuzzier versions, opening up chunks of the familiar hits for guitar shredding interludes or transforming something heavy like "American Guilt" with (still corny, but prettier) acoustic guitar. Usually, the live energy of Nielson's command of electric guitar becomes the focus, as he displays his immense technical talent with stunning but not-too-gratuitous solos and jamming. Kevin Krauter, a songwriter with a similarly diverse range of influences, opens this show with folksy synth tunes that filter Americana sounds through his electronics. —Reid Kurkerewicz