Unknown Mortal Orchestra : V

Unknown Mortal Orchestra V review

Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Ruban Nielson’s vigilant psych-rock ship of regrets, beats and life always subverts the right amount of punkish attitude. The kids would call it fuck-you juice; the term bandwidth plays to the demo it’s aimed at. UMO was assembled as such from the start and 13 years later it remains prestige contemporary rock music worth downloading without the 30-second preview listen. In the same way Steely Dan made some of the grooviest jazz-inspired FM radio staples in the late ’70s and early ’80s (quite literally no static at all) from the perspective of an overaged hipster still pining for that inappropriate-aged young lady adoration.

Nielson’s ennui is different but just as cutting. A bit more internal. Projecting itself onto scenarios. That’s the non-formula formula that keeps working every time—-prismatic misery getting its groove on—-making UMO one of the most gotta hear this bands by 21st-century rock standards. The group is led by the New Zealand-born Hawaiian/Maori artist Nielson, who’s part of an inclusive wing happening in the genre right now: Toro y Moi, Khruangbin, Mitski, Brittany Howard, Japanese Breakfast, Phoebe Bridgers, and Vagabon to name a few. Somewhat outsiders making a home for outskirt hybrids, documenting in real time a swiftly changing planet. These creatives bring new voices—themselves—to the rock table making a new Buffett, switching up a menu that previously existed of Wonder Bread. 

Going through old notes from a couple of years back I discovered my excitement, that in the midst of his biggest crossover moment to date, Sex & Food from 2018 remains a pop-banger with claws, darkness fueling those slappers—Midnight Vultures donning a face mask—never succumbed to the make-it-simple-on-my-podhole listening experience. “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” kept us shuffling to beat while our government, culture wars, blue versus red, kept all our equilibrium skittering out of balance.

Then IC-01 HANOI dropped, shortly after with little notice. A non-linear instrumental fusion funk jam of an album that combined Stevie’s Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants’ esoteric energy with Prince’s Black Album nippiness. That’s right, kids. Anyone who was hoping for a “Hunnybee” redux got shut down. IC-01HANOI was born from live jam sessions during the Sex & Food recording sessions, revealing even more unconventional portals in the UMO audio verse from a diametrically opposed creative department. That whole humid, chuggy instrumental weight thing, endures as a master chess player’s blind sighting move. 

Five years later, outside of popping up shotgun wailing his six-string, encamped in Hendrixian soul, over weighty crunch and bump on Toro y Moi’s Mahal last year, the UMO ship unloaded a double album with V, a record that plays itself as a companion to those blue skies, beachside cocktail bars and hotel pools Nielson grew up around. His childhood was spent by white hotel swimming pools with his siblings while their entertainer parents performed in showbands across the Pacific and East Asia. As detailed in the press notes “West Coast AOR, classic hits, weirdo pop and Hawaiian Hapa-haole music” runs through this 14-song, one-hour, slow burning White Lotus-esque experience, supplying Nielson with his most stirring mood board to sketch out arrangements for. Between the sing along disco-pop jammers, “Weekend Run,” “Guilty Pleasures,” “Meshuggah” and “That Life,” the UMO live shows will be stadium-rocking ready as always.

But V’s weight exists in the temperamental yet still heavily melodic instrumentals and internal questioning ballads. Steely Dan is cooked into the walls, floors, sunlight and Cuervo Gold on V in the most shimmering of ways. From the dead-on contemplative rumination of an ex, “Follow Me Closely/Then Suddenly Ghost me/ That don’t make any sense.” “In The Rearview” catches a tossed away paramour running it back possibly under the influence—of what, we are not sure. Then the instrumental fusion-jazz biz of “The Widow” and “Shin Ramyun” fluctuates between the sophisticated Aja vibes and The Night Fly autobiographical late-nite low-key casualness.

Recorded in New Zealand, Palm Springs and Hawai’i, with Nielson’s trusted brother Kody amidst several moves during the pandemic, V doesn’t resemble other lockdown projects. It quietly recalls a previous time instead of sounding like something assembled to pass it. If the sun, blue water, and beverages are bringing you down while on vacation, V couldn’t be a better travel companion.

Label: Jagjaguwar

Year: 2023

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