(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

CD review - Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Unknown Mortal Orchestra (2011)

Outsider pop? Sunshine psychedelia? Low-fi sonic explorations

Earlier this year, I caught Unknown Mortal Orchestra when they opened for Portugal. The Man (review here). I enjoyed their live sound, which expanded on rock song structures by adding some odd scales, giving them an experimental feel. The guitar and bass playing reminded me of Pavement.

Their self-titled debut album shows flashes of those sounds, but the overall effect is far richer. Fundamentally, UMO builds a low-fi, retro psychedelia that offers glimpses of '60s pop, garage rock, and some early Zappa/Mothers style riffage. But each track is its own musical destination. The one constant is UMO's low-fi production, which sounds exactly like an AM radio in a 1968 Plymouth Valiant. That's not the most useful comparison today, of course. Instead, imagine eavesdropping on a stranger listening to the music on their phone. It's none of your business, but something about the strains of sound acts as a siren call, drawing your ear in.

Cramming the songs into this limited bandwidth creates some odd resonances that jangle in the ear. The tracks are cheery and bouncy, creating a sunshine psychedelic effect. The opening song, Ffunny Ffrends starts off with a laid back beat Pavement guitar riff (intro) that slides into a super saturated sound. Ruban Nielson's falsetto vocals evoke T Rex's Marc Bolan. The track offers the first sense of UMO as outsider pop musicians. The heavy reverb and clipped vocals jostle together, noisy but still a compelling listen.

UMO shift away from the retro pop sound on Nerve Damage! Bookended with oddly effected, jazzy riffs, the main track is firmly grounded in garage/psychedelic rock that takes on tinge of Roky Erickson's 13th Floor Elevators. The quirky low-high vocal pairing is particularly interesting. The next song, Little Blu House, changes up the mix. It's sweet and trippy, with a Krautrock foundation groove. The sparse guitar loosely overlays the steady drive of the bass and drums, almost exorcising the thrash of Nerve Damage!

Contrasts like this fill Unknown Mortal Orchestra, which shows off how many heady flavors can be explored within UMO's constrained, low bandwidth sonic space. Retro ghosts of Yes, Zappa, and Syd Barrett dance with fractured shards of Beck and Stephen Malkmus. Serenely above it all, Unknown Mortal Orchestra calculates their next intriguing musical target.

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