In the totality of the rock canon, psychedelia bears one of the worst reputations. Even worse, dissatisfied rock ‘n’ rollers would be quick to dissent if it weren’t an unspoken rule that the only unwavering fans of psychedelia fall under the canopy of brain-fried drug enthusiasts or disenfranchised stooges who are too contrarian to digest the low-orbit pomp of AOR. To appreciate the hallucinogenic splendor of psychedelia requires an appreciation for sonic saturation, not just in infectious hooks but mind-bending effects and frenetic production techniques—but in defense of its detractors, it’s an overwhelming experience when the tenets of maximalism take hold on its visionaries. Thankfully, there’s a pretty generous thing called “pop” to dilute what sensitive ears may fear.
If you’ve heard a sliver of what this decade has offered in the way of accessible indie/psych amalgams, you’ll, at the very least, manage to pick up on some of the hype that’s produced some of the vastest albums in the last few years. One of the more prominent players in the revivalist by-line, multi-instrumentalist and acid-washed proselyte Ruban Nielson, didn’t rush into the spotlight with full expectations. In the lingering wake of the MP3 blogosphere phenomenon, the former Mint Chicks leader struck his second renaissance under the moniker Unknown Mortal Orchestra—the breakout in question was the freakish psych ditty of “Ffunny Ffriends,” which continues to make its rounds to this day. Nielsen’s homespun recordings cropped up in a proper debut album issued in 2011, followed by 2013’s brawny II, and lastly topped out by 2015’s uniquely conceptual and clear-cut Multi-Love.
Thus, it’s surprising to hear Sex & Food, the band’s fourth album, as a guileless return to form rather than a logical step forward into mainstream fullness. This trajectory isn’t a mere allegation, but a sign of Nielson’s aptness at transforming his once-spindly compositions into full-band likenesses in a compressed amount of time. Nonetheless, it’s still a stretch to label Unknown Mortal Orchestra as the stoic answer to this decade’s psychedelic orgy of a revivalist movement—brief introduction “A God Called Hubris,” in all of its nitrous oxide-fueled silliness, will refresh your notions of Nielson as a hackneyed, but talented arranger. Even if the seven-year span of UMO’s existence seems meager, there are wistful split seconds of déjà vu from Nielson’s discography, which attests to Sex & Food’s sampling of past explorations flocking together to form a fleetingly sleek final product. Finger-picked and scantily visceral, “This Doomsday” will unhesitatingly summon the bucolic harmonies of II’s “From the Sun,” but the former is far from a desperate repeat of Nielson’s most memorable works.
In hindsight, the seventies hue cast over Multi-Love accentuated the softer edge of Nielson’s songwriting even at its most sonically raucous. Two years after, Sex & Food withdraws the low-fidelity freakouts of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s debut to a tantamount degree without leading to the idea of imitation. Take the waterlogged “Major League Chemicals” or the fuzz bottleneck of lead single “American Guilt,” and these flashes of snazzy technical work construct some of the album’s more swaggering bleats for attention. Warped and glossed with an armada of tremolo gadgets, “Not in Love We’re Just High” siphons the sexy out of the sixties, barely raising above a tripped-out whisper. The sun-splattered chorus (“Said we’re not in love / We’re just halfway out of our mind / And we hang out high as kites”) might scream potential slacker rock hit, but Nielson’s contagious and carefree pop formula suggests something more grandiose. Look no further than the willowy pomp of “Hunnybee” and the wistful space of the exceptional closer “If You’re Going to Break Yourself” to discover the intimacy in Nielson’s craft.
Whatever Sex & Food wants to make you feel through its druggy semantics and equally trippy soundscapes, it’s an inevitably moving sentiment at play here. Middling in its tracklist are some of Nielson’s career-defining performances, although as a sum of its parts, Sex & Food settles between much-needed upheaval and a pleasant update in the flimsy annals of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. For a songwriter whose talents always seem directed in a particular headroom without calculation, Nielson’s latest batch of uppers wrestles with psychedelia as an emotional tool rather than a stylistic pulse—it’s all too good to be true at times, but it’s worthy of multiple listens.
This indie-rock band from New Brunswick embarks on their seventh full-length release with a sound that captures elements of alternative music from decades past while still delivering an album that feels new. The band has put together a compilation of fifteen tracks that clock in at around fifty minutes. Though a lengthier album by today’s standards, the mix of shorter and longer tracks are positioned well and the album doesn’t feel drawn out.
This record opens with the haunting “Glass House,” a song that is strong and dramatic. The vocals take turns with the amplification of the guitar and drums – a back and forth that is sure to capture attention. This repertoire highlights the nature of the tempestuous themes on the record, and the format of this opening track sets the stage for the rest of the album’s lyrical content. The track ends abruptly with the vocalist’s voice, seeming to declare that she has the last word in the matters discussed lyrically.
“I’ll Make You Sorry” has an infectious hook with a guitar that reeled me in. The overall sound is reminiscent of Sonic Youth and sounds like it could have been released in the late ‘80s.
“Dirt” is characterized by its cynical lyrics which go well with its dreary sound. The vocals are more monotonous on this track, but it feels appropriate for the subject-matter. The lyrics are about someone’s words essentially being dirt, and the short length of this song suggests that the vocalist has nothing left to say to whomever it is dedicated.
There are a few forgettable tracks on this album, but some redeem themselves by picking up some interesting qualities later in their run-times. ”Soft-domination” starts out rather bland but has a quiet-yet-concentrated instrumental between the bridge and final verse that breaks the repetitiveness of the song. “End Of My Bloodline” also has an issue with repetitive lyrics but its tone sets it apart from the others and makes it rather memorable.
“Agnes Martin” is worth nothing because of its nod to early ‘90s alternative music. At times, the layered guitars paired with the bass remind me of Siamese-Dream era Smashing Pumpkins, known for the heavy-handed albeit wonderfully crafted guitar-work. I felt the Siamese Dream influence again in the closing track, “Step Outside,” which starts out with a shining lengthy instrumental, leading the listener to believe the album might just close without another note of Marissa’s voice. Just before mid-point, however, the vocals enter and Marissa’s delivery is nothing short of a pleasing closing to the album.
While there are some songs that feel like filler, there’s enough variation between tracks that the full-effort doesn’t get tired and lost along the listening experience. There is a visit to alternative music of a couple of decades ago on this record, but lyrical themes like those on “Glass House” (possibly a commentary on the transparency of our lives via social media) remind listeners that this album is, in fact, a record of the present-day.