Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Sex and Food

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Groovy

Unknown Mortal Orchestra's new album isn't perfect, but it's disco and funk-tinged highlights make it their most accessible and playful record to date

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Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s latest offering, Sex and Food, is a glorious ‘guitar record’. Frontman Ruban Nielson pushes, warps and twists the instrument to its breaking point – his melodies contorted and strained through seemingly endless effects, merging and parting with the rest of the instrumentation in ever more unique ways. These souped-up guitar riffs serve as a start point for wildly creative suites of sound that effortlessly weave through genres and styles, taking the best of every previous UMO record and compressing those elements to near-perfection, save for a few drab moments towards the album’s close.

The quirky, fuzzed out production and booming riffs of album opener ‘A Good Called Hubris/Major League Chemicals’ are instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with UMO’s work – but their brand of neo-psychadelia is louder, trippier and funkier than ever. Fans of Tame Impala’s Lonerism or Toro Y Moi’s What For will be completely at home here, lulled into the band’s world through Nielson’s strained, distorted vocals beckoning you toward the chaos. The album rapidly dials back in tone through the reverb-soaked ‘Ministry of Alienation’ and glitzy, funky ‘Hunnybee’ – the latter a schmaltzy ballad with a wonderfully catchy chorus in tow. Nielson shows the true span of his talent, able to capture such opposite ends of the musical spectrum with ease, whilst keeping intact his distinctly recognisable brand of psych-rock.

The album continues to impress with lead single ‘American Guilt’ – a muscular, snarling rock song with a central guitar riff that sounds like Royal Blood on a boatload of acid, with Kody Nielson’s explosive drumming punctuating every moment with a flourish. “oh no, here comes the American Guilt” sings Nielson, an outside voice offering commentary on the chaos of American living, especially biting and relevant in recent times. A more laid-back approach to the same themes comes soon after in the lighthearted ‘Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays’ – a song that sits alongside ‘Can’t Keep Checking My Phone’ in its immediacy and accessibility. The jangling shakers that accompany the gorgeously disco-tinged chorus make the whole thing so inherently danceable, glimmering and joyous.

Unfortunately, the later tracks on the album do not reach the same highs as its incredibly strong opening – tracks like ‘This Doomsday’ or ‘Not In Love We’re Just High’ verging on the forgettable side of an album that’s so characterised with tonal variety and eclecticism. Perhaps what sets them in this bracket is less of a focus on production – a facet that Nielson pays huge attention to on the rest of the record, so much so that it feels like an instrument all of its own that accompanies his instrumental experimentation. On these later songs the UMO ‘sound’ doesn’t feel pushed or contorted in the same way it is on the singles, the charm of Nielson’s boundless enthusiasm seemingly wearing off in a  finish that’s relatively inoffensive and tame.

Nevertheless, Unknown Mortal Orchestra have provided a collection of songs that fits snugly within their trademark sound, whilst pushing boundaries in a bundle of genre-defying highlights. The band travelled around the world whilst producing the album, stopping off here and there to record snippets of songs that converge into diverse landscapes of well-travelled sound, incorporating each element into their musical vocabulary. Although let down by its second half, Sex and Food is a beautifully produced realisation of artistic intent, and will captivate new and old fans alike.

Sex and Food is out now via Jagjaguwar

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Music reviewer and real human being. Loves anything that can have the word 'alternative' tacked onto it somewhere.

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