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Where are we headed? What are we consuming, how is it affecting us, and why does everything feel so bad and weird sometimes? These are some of the questions posed on Ruban Nielson's fourth album as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Sex & Food. Recorded in a variety of locales from Seoul and Hanoi to Reykjavik, Mexico City, and Auckland, Sex & Food is a practical musical travelogue, with local musicians from the countries that Neilson and his band visited pitching in throughout.
Sex & Food is the most eclectic and expansive Unknown Mortal Orchestra release yet, from the light-footed R&B of "Hunnybee" to the stomping flange of "Major League Chemicals." "If You’re Going to Break Yourself" and "Not in Love We're Just High" chronicle the effects of drugs and addiction on personal relationships, while the lyrics "Ministry of Alienation" drip with modern-day paranoia like the silvery guitar tones that jewel the song's structure.
The modern world, and all the thorny complications that come with living in it, loomed large on Ruban's mind while making Sex & Food. Though he's not afraid to get topical throughout, as evidenced on the surprisingly boisterous "American Guilt" or the roomy-disco medication-meditation "Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays".
A statement of selflessness, to be sure-but make no mistake: Sex & Food reaffirms the vitality of Ruban's voice in today’s musical landscape.
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Brothers Ruban and Kody Nielson have been playing, recording and collaborating on music for decades. From the influences of their jazz musician father and dancer mother, Ruban and Kody have gone on to play in New Zealand's The Mint Chicks, and at its end in 2010, moved on to separate projects. Ruban formed Unknown Mortal Orchestra out of Portland, while Kody collaborated with various artists and musicians before his own solo project, SILICON, took shape. At the end of 2015, as UMO's Multi-Love and SILICON's Personal Computer made the rounds, garnering critical acclaim, Ruban and Kody (who played keyboards and drums on UMO's Multi-Love) took some time to rework tracks from each of their records. The theme of phones led to Kody working on UMO's "Can’t Keep Checking My Phone," changing it from a bouncy, sprite disco track to a sparser song filled with space, treated vocals and isolated drum breaks. Ruban's rework of SILICON's "Cellphone" is turned moody and dark, with a skittering beat and additional vocals. The limited edition Phone 7" is available on April 1, 2016.
The threads of our past never unravel, they hover like invisible webs, occasionally glistening due to a sly angle of the sun. On Multi-Love, Unknown Mortal Orchestra frontman and multi-instrumentalist Ruban Nielson reflects on relationships: airy, humid longing, loss, the geometry of desire that occurs when three people align. Where Nielson addressed the pain of being alone on II, Multi-Love takes on the complications of being together.
Multi-Love adds dimensions to the band's already kaleidoscopic approach, with Nielson exploring a newfound appreciation for synthesizers. The new songs channel the spirit of psych innovators without ignoring the last 40 years of music, forming a flowing, cohesive whole that reflects restless creativity. Cosmic escapes and disco rhythms speak to developing new vocabulary, while Nielson's vocals reach powerful new heights. "It felt good to be rebelling against the typical view of what an artist is today, a curator," he says. "It's more about being someone who makes things happen in concrete ways. Building old synthesizers and bringing them back to life, creating sounds that aren't quite like anyone else's. I think that’s much more subversive."
While legions of artists show fidelity to the roots of psychedelia, Unknown Mortal Orchestra shares the rare quality that makes the genre's touchstones so vital: constant exploration.
"I only started playing the acoustic guitar last year. I'd always preferred the idea that the guitar converts a sound into voltage and then becomes really loud. I thought the acoustic guitar was a little bit too twee for me or something. But after being offered some opportunities to play various acoustic sessions to promote the new record, in situations where it wasn't possible to record the whole band, I decided to treat it like a challenge to try and play acoustic and not have it be lame. After all I was really into Arthur Lee's ability with an acoustic and started wondering if I could make it sound convincing. Anyway, after being somewhat forced to develop some skill on the acoustic through these various radio sessions and things like that I decided to record some songs acoustically and release them since people seemed to be liking the way I was doing it. Everything was recorded straight to tape in my basement with a one mic set up." — RUBAN NIELSON, UMO
As Unknown Mortal Orchestra, New Zealand by-way-of Portland songwriter and guitarist Ruban Nielson marries spry, nervy psychedelia with sharp R&B touchstones. Timeless pop hooks are produced with a soft buzzsaw edge so that the effect is akin to Stevie Wonder producing Plastic Ono Band into Nuggets-like gems. It's a one-two punch that has caught the ear of hip-hop community heavyweights (like ?uestlove, El-P) and indie-world heroes (Liars, Toro Y Moi). With bassist Jacob Portrait and drummer Greg Rogrove, Unknown Mortal Orchestra is preparing a full-length for early 2013. Single "Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)," a bittersweet power-pop romp with melodies more delicate than most approaching the genre would dare, is our first taste from the recordings. It's b-side, "Waves of Confidence," is slow-grind sizzurp psych that, by its end, has built and layered to transcendent heights.