Photo by Neil Krug
Written by Emma Weaver
The modern psychedelic band, Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO), recently released an album, Sex & Food, after their three year hiatus. Comprised of New Zealand and Portland bred Ruban Nielson and Jake Portrait, UMO blends a ‘70s psychedelic rock feel with the very modernistic trends we now hear in music today. Their albums instantly show their ability to grab a little bit of this and a little bit of that, whether funk, psychedelic, rock, pop—the list goes on and on—and produce a loud, yet smooth rendition of bursting, gushing texture.
The album cover of Sex & Food sets up a “feel” for this album. Before even listening to the album, we instantly see someone clad in a rather obscure ensemble. A black and white futurist suit, similar to one of an astronaut, is featured and centralized around a bright contrasted pink hand. On the color spectrum, they are that dark pink. Not always adhering to a light or dark sound, but meeting somewhere in the middle, UMO uses this album to represent the utter spectrum they fall on. No one song is the same. Each song contains a idiosyncratic quality, abiding by the element of surprise and variance. And if just paying attention to the titles of the songs, you will still notice that quality within UMO. Featuring songs titled “A God Called Hubris”, “American Guilt”, or “Chronos Feasts on His Children”, Sex & Food embodies both introspection and overall scrutiny. It’s an answer to all our questions, regarding ourselves and our current world. It makes direct observations about our current society and life, even politics, which should be talked, and sung, about heavily in our current state of affairs.
The first song, “A God Called Hubris”, is 40 seconds of synth riffs paired alongside a very psychedelic guitar, with a brief, and almost youthfully innocent, voice saying “Hey Guys”. Maybe this is their way of welcoming everyone into their new album…
Both “American Guilt” and “Major League Chemicals” embark on more of their rock sound. Both these songs are ragged and harsh, in a great way, that encompasses rough vocals and guitar. And while these songs focus more on heavily accented rhythms and repetitive riffs, it wouldn’t be a UMO song without the inclusion of their mind-expanding psychedelic tendencies and prowess. Their oozing funky, psychedelic sounds are their main feature, but this album showcased their ability to expand into their gritty distortions.
“American Guilt” contains the lyrics
“Land of the expensive/ Even the Nazis are crying/ History’s private property/ Viva la Mexico”
And “Major League Chemicals” sings,
“She wanted to/ Find a way/ To be someone else for a day/ Major league chemicals make her grave/ Miracles in a bathroom stall”.
Remind you of anything???
Sex & Food is warped and layered, though, so there are many elements and sound included. “Hunnybee”, “How Many Zeros”, and “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” are their more upbeat, pop songs. While the very term “pop” can be seen as more of a limited label for certain music productions, it is important to understand that UMO’s music doesn’t fall under one label; they aren’t really even associated with a label. It is easy to call them a psychedelic rock band, but that’s merely to derive a genre as a mode of classification and perspective. They aren’t one sound, or genre—they are the pure medley of all that has enchanted the musical gamut. “Hunnybee” is a very dreamy song, accompanied by a gentle orchestra, synth, and Neilson’s placid, soothing voice. Nielson wrote this song about and for his daughter, as a “platonic love song” with subtleties directed towards naiveté and innocence. He sings
“Love survives forever/ Age of paranoia/ Don’t be such a modern stranger/ Oh angel… Hunnybee/ There’s no such thing/ As sweeter a sting”.
“How Many Zeros” contains lyrics:
“Sometimes bruises equal memories/ Pulled towards that love like gravity”.
This song highlights the shimmering instability of UMO’s sound and voice, as Nielson goes back and forth between ranges and energy. “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowdays” is more of a funky pop rhythm that emits a certain sense of stability. There are still shifts, but the song is more of a cyclical dance song. Also, the title says it all, because if being frank, EVERYONE is acting crazy nowadays. As UMO puts it “I’m caught beyond the feeling I won’t live far beyond this/ I’m caught beyond the feeling I won’t live far beyond these years/ We’re growing in a vicious garden”. (Maybe our political system should listen to this song!)
“Chronos Feasts on His Children” is my favorite song off this album. It’s subdued resonance is both catchy and mystifying. It’s rather simplistic sound is heavily contrasted with the heavy lyrics, such as “Chronos feasts on his children/ Like dirty mango flesh/ Will the trouble cease/ When she pays off the police?” Chronos, in a philosophical sense, is the personification of time. Maybe we need to look at this song from the very metaphysical perspective UMO mastered, and read between the lines. This album doesn’t meander in an out of certain concepts or thoughts, there is a structure associated with the production of this album, and “Chronos Feasts on His Children” is a perfect example of this. This song is a reference to the passage of time, and the way in which it manifests itself throughout our lives. It’s lush orchestration resonates deep within the hearts and souls of both the band and the listeners. UMO provides a rather sweet, yet dark substance filled song as an intermediary between lubricity, electricity, and power.
“This Doomsday” and “If You’re Going to Break Yourself” are somewhat similar to “Chronos Feasts on His Children”, in the sense that they possess a rather deep state of calm externally and a deep state of depth internally. Purely based on melody and tone, these songs serve as an oasis of serenity, with the showcase of the finger picked guitar riffs, smooth sonics, and tenderness. Underneath it all, the lyrical mastery of UMO portrays a bigger picture. UMO orchestrates a grainy rendition of religion, in “This Doomsday”, and the relationship between love and loss, in “If You’re Going to Break Yourself”.
“Our tongues and our spit, blue from blue candy/ Kissed with numb lips and wondered what was awkward/ This landscape is a paradise swing and close your eyes and/ You’re an asshole you know but I miss you”
– “If You’re Going to Break Yourself”
“The Internet of Love (That Way)” and “Ministry of Alienation” are more of UMO’s eclectic songs featured on this album. “The Internet of Love (That Way)” consists of a higher version of Nielson’s voice accompanied by a distorted funky jazz feel. As Nielson’s voice shifts back and forth on the rather broad spectrum he engineered for his musical output, “The Internet of Love (That Way)” almost sounds like a gospel at times, with his voice fading out into soft undertones overpowered by synth and the drums. While, “Ministry of Alienation” is a slower song, that performs UMO’s unique interpretation of jazz and funk. This song sounds somewhat similar to Mac Demarco’s album, This Old Dog, in the sense that its drawn out to create a sluggish poise.
“Not in Love We’re Just High”, the last song I will talk about, has a very contagious beat and rhythm to it. It’s rhythmically superior verses carry on all throughout the song, almost adhering to very qualities of a “high” song. It’s a very relaxed sound, with just the right amount of pep and force. Nielson described the track as, “his attempt to write a UMO version of an Adele piano ballad”. The song is relatively calm and composed, but the last minute erupts and oozes funk, rock, and pop.
Sex & Food is perfect for those moments consumed by food, or even sex… It’s low-key seductiveness glistens all throughout the album, as UMO masters the very nature of multivalence. They stray from predictability and, instead, adhere to the beauty of erratic versatility. This album allowed for all to get a deeper look into UMO’s adaptable and strong musicianship and songwriting. They demonstrated progression and an overall enhancement of their craft, which is why I firmly believe this is the album of the month, and a perfect step into the up and coming Spring/Summer season.
EMMA WEAVER | KXSU Music Reporter