Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi Love

Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Multi LoveUnknown Mortal Orchestra have always seemed like the epitome of the bedroom recording philosophy taken to new, dazzling heights. From the band’s humble beginnings, when mastermind Ruban Nielsen posted a track concocted in his primitive home studio online anonymously, to their current status as the critic's darling and newest flag wavers for psych-pop, or neo-psychedelica, or whatever it’s called these days; Nielsen has never abandoned his audio geek love for meticulously crafted bedroom recordings.

Multi Love, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s third album, is a dazzling piece of work, constantly surprising and delighting even the most discerning listener with its smorgasbord of ear candy, tasty grooves, vocals processed in ever new and inventive ways, lovely warm synth, and spikey guitars. The album started as the cure for an emotional hangover from a menage a trois made in bohemian heaven: Mr and Mrs Nielsen, and a mysterious Japanese vixen whom Ruban met while on tour. After the ‘other woman’ had her US visa expire, barring her from the country indefinitely, the Nielsen couple were left to ponder what had transpired.

Suffering from severe touring fatigue and a general confusion as to what this ‘music career’ thing exactly is, Nielsen withdrew to his Portland basement studio and after ten months emerged with Multi Love. More than just a reflection on their recent love triangle, Ruban’s goal for the album was to question and examine love itself, and whether the legacy of the 60s has lived up to its promise.

Multi Love is a new direction stylistically for Unknown Mortal Orchestra. In the past the band was inspired by 60s psychedelica , garage pop and acid rock, but this time the touchstones are Sly and the Family Stone, Young Americans-era Bowie, synth pop, Prince, and even everyone’s favorite creepy boy wonder genius, Michael Jackson.

The first sound we hear on the album’s opener and title track is a plunky electric piano, over which Nielsen’s falsetto voice croons about the perils and delights of 'multi love'. After about a minute the drums and bass kick in, and they are of the driest, nastiest, funkiest variety you can imagine. They drive most of this record in a boxed-in, modern version of the Philly sound.

On “Like Acid Rain” the Sly Stone influence really comes to the fore. This song sounds like a basement jam by the Stone Family band, all funk plucked bass, bone dry drums, happily chirping synths and demented back up vocals. “Ur Life One Night” on the other hand approaches a Prince pastiche, complete with breathy ahhs, wah bass, and an 80s drum machine. The melody flutters and winds its way in and out of the beat, giving his Purple Higness a run for his money. Prince called, Mr Nielsen: he wants his groove back.

After an intro that sounds like a sample from a Brasil 66 record, “Can’t Keep Checking my Phone” is a song about the need to be constantly connected through technology , features the tastiest disco groove this side of the 70s. “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty” is the most otherworldly and unsettling track of the record, sounding like The Flaming Lips on acid (no, really!) or a lounge band made up of robots on a cruise ship in outer space, until it’s completely destroyed by a glitchy beat and clamorous guitar solo. It then disintegrates into reverb-drenched wooziness.

“Stage or Screen” is a slight return to the 60s style stoner rock of their previous albums, albeit it with a much extended sonic palette, whereas closer “Puzzles” sounds like a 21st Century version of the wacky kitchen sink psychedelica perfected by The Small Faces on their masterpiece Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. The song ends on a beautifully minimal guitar figure over the same heavily compressed funk drums that propel most of the record (courtesy of Ruban’s brother). And then it’s done, the listener left slightly speechless.

Because for all its dazzling virtuosity, its intricate arrangements and hooks by the dozen, and its impeccable control of the recording studio as a means of artistic expression; sadly, the ambitious subject matter does not translate into an emotionally gripping piece of work. While the sonic kaleidoscope of Multi Love is endlessly fascinating like a glistening, ornate house of mirrors, the soul remains unmoved. But then in this reviewer’s opinion, the same could be said of many records that are hailed by critics as the Next Big Thing. It’s probably best to just enjoy the ride and let yourself be bedazzled and perplexed by the artistic and musical tour de force that is Unknown Mortal Orchestra's latest album. Just watch out for mysterious Japanese vixens.

Release: 26th May, Jagjaguwar

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