With no listed credits, no liner notes, no photographs and a very blatant use of the word “Unknown,” Unknown Mortal Orchestra‘s self-titled debut is very carefully (or carelessly) designed to keep the listener from accessing too much information about the artist. This isn’t necessarily novel; in the past couple years, it was hard to avoid anonymity-as-aesthetic in indie rock, dubstep, witch house or Tumblr’n’b. And it’s since become common knowledge that Unknown Mortal Orchestra is, in fact, Ruban Nielson of the Mint Chicks. But whereas the secret identity of Burial, as an example, fed into the eerie, mysterious atmosphere of his production, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s debut acts more like that amazing, unmarked cassette dubbed by a college friend with no tracklist or adhesive label, just nine great tunes.
At once, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s debut is very trippy and pleasantly weird, but warm and familiar in an intangible way. And though it spans a trim 30 minutes, Nielson stacks the record with as many nifty sonic baubles and bric-a-brac as he can fit into each individual track without allowing them to sound cluttered or overworked. There’s a lot going on, and in ways that recall the likes of Super Furry Animals, The Beta Band or, more recently, Bibio, Unknown Mortal Orchestra seems to smash together a variety of sounds into one quirky and cohesive whole, sputtering trip-hop beats laying down beneath bubblegum and psychedelia, with occasional classic rock flair.
Despite what may initially seem like a zany, kitchen-sink approach, Nielson is quite the crafty songwriter, and his tunes are all tightly written and highly accessible. Early single “Ffunny Ffrends” kicks off the album with an off-kilter swagger and a sunny disposition, its hazy guitars ringing beneath Nielson’s effects-treated falsetto in a confluence of perfect sunny day elements. Nielson ruminates about alligators on the bubbly psych-pop of “Thought Ballune,” which features some delicious Moog blips, while the garage-funk jam “How Can U Luv Me” asks the important question, “How can you love me, if you don’t like me?” And the swinging “Nerve Damage!” is simply fantastic garage rock of the highest order, loaded with punk rock energy and goofball grins all around.
The faux-anonymity behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra is, frankly, arbitrary, but Unknown Mortal Orchestra may very well be making an important point about the quality of the music against the unnecessary and sometimes-distorted biographical details that sometimes clutter up an artist’s identity (Justin Vernon recorded an album in the woods, purple monkey dishwasher). And the jams on the outfit’s debut most certainly stand on their own as delightful and effortless pop gems. Unmarked, uncredited or otherwise, this is perfect summer pop music and that’s all that matters.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.