by Ayanna Jacobs-El
The psychedelic rock outfit Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO) recently released their fourth album Sex & Food after a nearly three year wait. Fronted by New-Zealand-American singer, songwriter, and guitarist Ruban Nielson, the band has developed its own distinctive lo-fi sound that blends a number of genres such as R&B, funk, soul, folk, and rock. The band first broke onto the scene in 2010, when Ruban Nielson posted their track “Ffunny Ffrends,” to his anonymous Bandcamp profile. The track received a lot of buzz and speculation around who created it, and eventually, Nielson revealed that Unknown Mortal Orchestra was the band behind the song. Since then, the band has released four albums that have all received critical acclaim, and they are currently embarking on an extensive worldwide tour.
On Sex & Food, UMO steps away from the more mainstream sound they presented on the upbeat Multi-Love to adopt a more understated and subdued direction. A great example of this is “How Many Zeroes,” a jazzy-funk tune that presents a commentary on our obsession with the pursuit of money to purchase material things. If you don’t pay close attention to the lyrics, you can easily miss the important message, due to the breezy, chill vibe of the song. Delving into a pure rock context is the heavy “American Guilt” about the paranoia and surveillance that permeates American society. The distorted guitar riff instantly draws you in and Nielson’s distinctive fuzzed out vocals convey the angry message very effectively.
My favorite track off of the album is “Hunnybee” which, according to Nielson, is about his daughter. Through the lyrics, he presents advice on how to navigate the bad things that the world will throw at her and how to look at the bright side of the challenges she will face. The smooth, funky, soul groove instantly evokes a nostalgic, feel-good vibe, and the soothing, melodic chorus easily gets stuck in your head. Returning to their characteristic psychedelic vibe is “Ministry of Alienation.” The lethargic sound of the music coupled with Nielson’s hazy vocals aid in pushing the lyrical ideas of how society has become too dependent on technology. The track ends with a frenetic saxophone solo that concludes in an unresolved manner, seeming to represent the uncertainty that is in store for our society.
Ultimately, the overall direction of Sex & Food is intriguing and will satisfy fans craving for new music from Unknown Mortal Orchestra. The overarching themes of the album present a commentary on the turbulent times we live in and Nielson expresses his frustrations throughout his quirky lyrical content and soulful vocals. While it isn’t as lively as Multi-Love, it still draws listeners in with the dynamic shifts and styles that showcase the band’s ability to easily navigate a number of genres. Sex & Love continues to expand upon Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s beloved, identifiable sound and the honesty and passion that have become a hallmark of their music.
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