Fuck me, I did it again.
Every year – usually the first week in January – I’ll run a Google search for the years’ upcoming albums. And every year – usually the first week in January – I’ll ritualistically adorn one as my most anticipated. I’ve learned to try and make especially safe bets, because obviously this shit never works out. Take 2012. There’s no possible way a full-length collaboration between Annie Clark and David Byrne could fall short of timeless classic. Except it was mostly just fine. Hardly a high point in either of their careers, though.
So here we are.
It’s 2013 and NPR is featuring Unknown Mortal Orchestra on their latest edition of First Listen. Of course I was treating it’s release date of 2/5 like a goddamn holiday, so I should have known this was all going to come crashing down. This was the safe bet because I knew what was coming. During a year on the road with Grizzly Bear in support of their self titled debut, Ruban Nielson and friends still managed to absolutely floor me with a pair of singles. “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” and “I’ll Come Back 4 U” signified huge lyrical & sonic footsteps forward from the debut cuts while still maintaining the sepia-toned flavor. The former was even going to find it’s way on the upcoming II. So naturally, I was kind of losing my shit in expectation.
The opening track, “From The Sun”, is everything I hoped it would be. It reminds me of all that is good about UMO. From the first moments, there’s Nielson’s virtuostic picking, his airy, yet piercing harmonies and some chilling lyrics. “Isolation, it can put a gun in your hand” he repeats, adopting an almost elderly diction. I don’t think he meant for the first words of II to be so topical, but the best songwriters always manage to paint a picture – and this is one is borderline uncomfortable. That’s a good thing, by the way.
In fact, the album’s first 11 minutes or so are pure fucking bliss. “Swim and Sleep” continues to age well and the indie, white boy soul of “So Good At Being In Trouble” will soundtrack PBR-fueled dance parties for months to come. The common denominator here is Nielson’s vocal front and center. All indications are that he’s added engrossing storytelling to his repertoire – right next to catchy hooks. Then, it abruptly runs out of fuel. Where the guitar playing on the first three tracks seem acceptably influenced by the classic-rock guitar gods, it suddenly starts sounding like alternate takes for “Inca Roads”. We start hearing horns on top of gluttonous wah-pedaling. Worst of all, that vitally personifying vocal starts drowning in the dirty water. It’s so sad looking at the notes from my first listen. It’s clear I’m trying to maintain grasp of why this album was going to define 2013, but it’s slipping through my hands. On “Opposite of Afternoon”, I mention it’s a track straight out of Cream’s catalog. That’s a bad thing, by the way.
“No Need For a Leader” ironically pushes Nielson’s vocal behind the guitar army he’s created. By “Faded In The Morning”, I’ve lost all hope. It’s become derivative enough to sound like a Hendrix B-side, right down to it’s Mitch Mitchell-esque freakout fills and cymbal washes. For what it’s worth, it’s cool, and perfectly listenable. It’s just that I had every reason to believe UMO was on the brink of carving a niche uniquely theirs, not subscribing to something mostly nostalgic. “Secret Xtian” leaves an optimistic taste, but at this point it might as well be room temperature coffee. His voice emerges from the mush, but it’s far too little too late. They rode on the heels of a simple groove, and that’s exactly how they ride out. Unassuming. I’ll still catch their next show in town and wait patiently for Nielson to drop a few choice remixes. UMO still has all the potential in the world, and to their credit, I completely jinxed them.