As far as album titles go, II is a pretty open admission that you’re not shaking the formula up too much with your second album. Playing tonight on the very day of their new record’s UK release, Unknown Mortal Orchestra showcase some of the material which forms their strong second album, one which continues to mine psychedelic, sixties-rock wig-outs without any shred of wry knowingness or irony. Unsurprisingly, the material of the two albums coheres into a seamless whole tonight, but the set also successfully spotlights the newer material as being significantly more assured and well crafted, in spite of its deceptively looser and freewheeling feel, played alongside the songs of the debut.
Opening number ‘Little Blu House’ lays out the formula and sets the bar high. Having lived with this material long enough to craft it to perfection as well as improvise within broad parameters, the trio work through the checklist of everything which they do well – spongy, relaxed rhythm section work, crackling falsetto, dexterous guitar runs – before descending into an extended improvisation of intensifying guitar work of searing ferocity.
Interestingly, however, some of the earlier material doesn’t fare so well. Studio highlights like ‘How Can U Luv Me’ don’t translate so strongly to the live setting, with Neilson’s vocal work sounding somewhat like it’s battling upsteam against its convoluted, meandering guitar work, with none of the individually excellent components to the song quite congealing into a satisfying or comfortable whole. Indeed, in terms of the material making up the debut, it’s the most direct songs which shine brightest – cuts like ‘Bicycle’, for instance, which sees all three members contributing unified vocals, hugging the guitar lines tightly, and unleashing a simple but effective power as a united sonic front.
Encouragingly, however, the more expansive material of the second album seems to have been crafted with the live show more firmly in mind – the guitar work and vocals always complimenting each other, rather than dancing unsurely around each other. Lauded single ‘So Good At Being In Trouble’ is a fabulous example of this – everything hanging together deceptively formlessly, while Neilsen’s gorgeously lovelorn melody drapes over everything luxuriously. However, as some of the material from the debut tonight proves, it’s no simple feat to sound so effortless, and the appreciation for the strength of the second album’s material is felt all the more keenly by the juxtaposition. Listened to side by side, the attention to detail in the recording of both albums is exquisite, and succeeds in bringing both to life. Tonight reveals that Unknown Mortal Orchestra have evolved and matured more than you might first think – a realisation which makes you want to spend even more time exploring the new record, as well as keeping a close eye on their continuing development.