Unknown Mortal Orchestra may sound like the name of a hairy symphonic metal gang, a wristcutting emo act, or a Top 40-covering string quartet, but the New Zealanders are thankfully none of the above. Providing the group with a name that was intentionally “easy to find on Google,” frontman Ruban Nielson was recognized by the blogosphere before he even had a band to support his vision. Now on their second full length, UMO seem fixated on turning rock history into modern art, bringing depth and density to their reimagining of the British Invasion and reconfiguring of Motown.
Nielson’s voice evokes a raspier John Lennon while the rest of his crew stretch the Beatles-gone-indie approach even farther, throwing in some low-temperature Stevie Wonder funk on “So Good At Being in Trouble” and “Secret Xtians” for extra points. Employing the Led Zeppelin album titling strategy for their sophomore work, the band seems determined to be the rebirth of classic rock, slow-burning psychedelic song spinners of the highest order, modeling themselves after the greats with complexity and verve.
II, however, is not the savior of rock n’ roll. It does not push back the wheel of time, though it might make time's tread forward a bit more pleasant. “No Need for a Leader,” a crunchy Black Keys-style tune is chillier and artier than anything the Black Keys themselves have released, but it reveals capable songwriting chops. UMO are too detached, too cool, too interested in textures, to make their retro pop music stick to the roof of your brain like the Black Keys do. Nonetheless, their lightly experimental artisanal production (using a child's laughter as a musical instrument on “Fading from the Morning”) is more accessible than Tame Impala’s revisionist psychedelia, if not as consciousness expanding.
The sunny delivery of lines like “Isolation can put a gun in your hand,” and “Who cares what God is or a guitar is or that you were born,” make UMO the oddest and most hazily philosophical of recent classic rock throwback groups. In the end though, their progressive tendencies and Elephant Six-like quirkiness perhaps place them far outside of the more direct era-channeling of the White Stripes or the Black Keys. II is a spacey, vaguely ambitious, pop curiosity, a softly surreal and heavily stoned take on unburied legends.