Unknown Mortal Orchestra
For some reason, over 40 years after the fact, some of the best psychedelic rock ever has come from the land down under and their little brother, New Zealand. As guitar rock has largely disappeared from the airwaves, the far-out sounds of Tame Impala have continued to permeate, as three albums in, they now stand as one of the best rock bands on the planet. The Kiwis ain’t no chumps neither. New Zealand-born Ruban Nielson has helmed one of the most fun psych-rock projects going today in Unknown Mortal Orchestra, a band whose playful sounds are nearly impossible to shake.
The self-titled debut turned 60’s era psychedelic pop into catchy, hip-hop infused ear candy. The second album, (aptly titled II) turned inward pointing at the darkness brewing just under those sunny, psychedelic grooves. Now, Multi-Love, takes the first two and extrapolates it out into the corners of soul, jazz, and funk.
The album title, unsurprisingly, is speaking about an ended polyamorous relationship between Ruban, his wife, and another woman who lived with them the two for a time; certainly strange material to cover in music, but probably not that unusual for a psychedelic rocker. What isn’t weird is the music that the relationship produced: with Nielson exploring his fragile state that emerged from this situation.
Rather than using the studio and money provided to him by the record label, Nielson chose to create a home studio (pictured on the album cover), where he would record in the middle of the night (remnants of the insomnia he was diagnosed with years ago). With this decision comes an intimacy in the music that is apparent from the lone keyboard that springs out of the opening track. Playing his guitar like a sitar, “Multi-Love” sounds like one of those Indian-influenced George Harrison tracks from the last few Beatles albums, except if you added in a dose of shake and shimmy. “Like Acid Rain” returns the celebratory pop of their first album, if only for two minutes and one second. “Ur Life One Night” releases a funky new side to the band, sort of channeling Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On with its distorted funk and catchy soul.
“Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”, Multi-Love’s lead single, is probably the biggest outlier in all their catalog to this point, but a worthwhile change. It pure disco dance pop that would have been right at home on the new Hot Chip record, led by one big and relatable hook, “I can’t keep checking my phone.” It’s a song that will likely alienate those that came to UMO for their big psychedelic guitar riffs, but it’s hard to deny its infectiousness.
The album standout comes in “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty”, a song that strangely conjures the genuine-hearted jazz spirit of Louis Armstrong. Nielson husks up his voice like Armstrong’s and has his father, a professional horn player back in New Zealand, play the soaring sax solo that takes the song to another plain. The song explores the sort of escapism we have all probably felt: what would it be like if we just left the baggage of our lives behind to start a new life happily together on an island somewhere, “abandoning extreme wealth and casual cruelty.” It’s an intriguing sentiment, one that feels instantly possibly and ecstatic from the sounds and mood that Nielson conjures up on the song.
The next track, “The World Is Crowded”, continues the spirit of escapism, in a highly romantic and funky slow groove, with Nielson channeling that slippery Prince falsetto. “Necessary Evil” keeps the groove going, with Nielson’s father playing a light trumpet hook to lift out of the murk of the rambling, anxious organ.
Multi-Love closes with guitars blazing on “Puzzles”, which certainly provides some visceral release after the strange haze of the rest of the album, but feels the least at home here. Still, at nine tracks, Nielson wisely keeps his albums nice and tight, even if the songs explore all corners of the known musical universe. Multi-Love is yet another colorful and stimulating album from one of the best voices in rock going today.
Can’t Miss: “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty”, “Ur Life One Night”, “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”
Can’t Hit: “Puzzles”