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Album Review
Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Unknown Mortal Orchestra
by Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Seeing Records

Review Date
20th June, 2011
Reviewed by
Paul Gallagher

The emergence of Unknown Mortal Orchestra last year was one of those moments of new music where you actually sit up and take notice, listening to a tune for the first time which engages you and captures your attention in the way that you think back on it and revisit it in the days following that first experience. 'Ffunny Ffrends', released with all its mystery and slight anonymity was telling, and in many ways embodied the definition of the term 'hook'. It was with a certain level of surprise and satisfaction that I discovered that UMO was Ruban Nielson's new project in the months afterward. With that satisfaction though, came that sort of kicking-yourself-for-not-hearing-it-sooner moment when the similarities of the Mint Chicks' music and that of UMO were revealed.

It's difficult to write about new work of a former member of a band like the Mint Chicks, a group that for years was synonymous with the live music scene of Auckland and the coming of age for many of your friends and other musician acquaintances. The Mint Chicks were, and always will be, an evocative and wrenching experience. Some of my greatest memories of shows during the first few years of university were of the Mint Chicks at Schooner Tavern or the Kings Arms or Shadows or even The Castle in Hamilton (oddly surrounded by under-aged Asian schoolgirls carrying plates of freshly cut melon). But despite all that - the half dozen or so releases, the fetching DIY music videos, the sheer aggressiveness of the early EPs, the grand scale successes of the award winning later albums and jaunts to make big things even bigger overseas - after a while it seemed as if there was always going to be an expiration date to the dream.

And so, born from the stifled and truncated Mint Chicks' Portland experiment is Unknown Mortal Orchestra. It's plain to see that Ruban Nielson's a whole lot less uncomfortable with UMO than what life was like at times performing under the Mint Chicks canon. It's almost a freeing experience of emancipation of sorts; it shows in the music, and wonderfully the music succeeds because of it. The self-titled release is a broad spectrum range of moments marking moments of musical fandom where hallowed styles are touched, re-touched and then reconsidered through the lens of disciplined and utterly pop-driven focus. To put it shortly, this album is extremely good.

'Ffunny Ffrends' is terrifyingly good. It's no-nonsense fuzz pop iconography which serves to underline just how important this record is. But since we've had a year at least to revel in that single, focus must also be cast towards the album's other gems. Over the last few months, various new UMO tracks have been found lurking in the trees of the internet and staining the snowdrifts of blog sites. The second track - 'Bicycle' - could just be my latest favourite song. It's simply stunning in all its squelching goodness. 'Little Blu House' is another highlight, a psychedelic pitch dream. 'Thought Ballune' and 'How Can U Luv Me' are both strengths which also highlight the affectations of UMO's devotion to classic 1970s pop construction.

There are obvious shades of Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and the Kinks throughout, but what's important to note is that those historic veins have been shrewdly tarted up and given a relished energy. It's a collating of the strengths of music knowledge and a collage of those strengths into a fresh vision where UMO have created something quite remarkable - a record that will be well worth returning to throughout the months to come.


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