UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA
Album review: "Unknown Mortal Orchestra"
There is something weird about the self-titled debut by Unknown Mortal Orchestra. This is not surprising for a psychedelic-pop album; it's almost always a given. But UMO is different. Its weirdness doesn't come from song construction, special effects or mystical lyrics. Elementally speaking, there is nothing too bizarre about what defines these nine songs. The guitars swim in reverb, the bass lines are playfully funky and Ruban Nielson doesn't sing so much as chirp.
It could be a 1971 acid-rock flashback, a lost album from the psychedelic revivalist Elephant 6 collective or, with all of those falsetto vocals and surprisingly adept funkiness, Beck's latest musical transformation. That uncertainty is what's ultimately appealing - you want to keep listening to get more hints as to who's responsible for these goofy, catchy tunes.
Turns out it's Nielson, a New Zealander who fronted the noisy punk trio Mint Chicks. But knowing that information neither enhances nor diminishes the experience of listening to "Unknown Mortal Orchestra." The verse-chorus shifts are subtle, sometimes barely recognizable, adding a hypnotic quality. "FFunny FFrends" drifts along lazily, happily and lightly. Those qualities apply to most of these songs, which have plenty of room to breathe. Even the token two-minute charger, "Nerve Damage!," is more of a silly jaunt than a hardened rocker.
--David Malitz, Sept. 9, 2011
TORO Y MOI
Album review: "Underneath the Pine"
Some albums are meant to be played loud. Toro y Moi's "Underneath the Pine" is not one of them. The second effort from Chaz Bundick expands on the dreamy bedroom haze of his debut - roll your eyes and call it "chillwave" - ditching laptop sounds for live instrumenta-tion. But even as he ratchets up the energy with lilting grooves and retro-futuristic funk, the songs rarely demand complete attention or increased volume.
This is music that is meant to linger in the background - the hippest of on-hold tunes or something the kids on "Skins" listen to at a party for a few minutes before getting mixed up in some scandalous high jinks.
Chillwave is an ideal starter genre but not something to make a career of, with its built-in stylistic limitations, which focus almost exclusively on ambiance and vibe. To his credit, Bundick understands the need for more dynamic moments. "New Beat" (presumably the album's mission statement) and "Still Sound" are slinky slices of soul-disco that bounce along thanks to blurting keyboards and bass. They aren't quite fit for the dance floor, and they are too rambunctious for the bedroom.
The gauzy glow of French duo Air and the space-age bachelor-pad music of Stereolab crop up throughout "Underneath the Pine," although Toro y Moi lacks the otherworldly radiance of the former and the propulsive force of the latter. And while Bundick has succeeded in adding some sizzle to his sound, his voice remains meek and too mellow for its own good.
Incomprehensible lyrics delivered with a flimsy falsetto make the songs casually bleed into one another, and they make "Underneath the Pine" a bit too chill for its own good.
--David Malitz, Feb. 22, 2011