by Jeff Milo
[Up and coming...]
Psych-pop trio Unknown Mortal Orchestra's eponymous debut seems, on its surface, to demonstrate the evoling trend (or coincidence?) that's seen spats of contemporary bands embracing, if not flaunting, a lo-fi sound, (fuzzed-out reverb and effects-drenched vocals).
Where some of these bands catch flack for coming off as contrived, perceivably reaching-for (i.e. manipulating) their way into this grimily raw (i.e. edgy) aesthetic, UMO surpasses any quibbling, buoyed by the merit of its subtle shades of funk and soul sutured into the freak-out fun of a hooky, pop-inclined psychedelic space rock.
Led by a Portalnd-trasnplanted-Kiwi who's been honing his footing in rough-hewn guitar scrapes for a decade (previously with The Mint Chicks) and backed by a rhythm section seemingly possessed by funk dynamos like the Meters or the Bar-Kays - the results are echo-y, three-minute pop mutations fraught with strange, tinny guitar tones, squashed and wrung out by an array of pedals, atop some fiercely bumping bass grooves and chopped up drums. Danceability bolsters its charm, to be sure; like Ariel Pink, UMO make the garage sound like a groovy disco.
On 08’s Real Emotional Trash, Stephen Malkmus, perhaps presumptuous of his swooning Pavement powers, spent some of his Indie-Prince capital by asking you to sit through multiple 6-minute psychedelic blues jams, streaked with drawn out solos and out-of-place elements of baroque pop muddled with 70's sludge-rock.
Mirror Traffic’s 15 tracks deceive its comparably refreshing brevity. Most songs get in and get out in less than 4 minutes, swathed with plenty of his usual sardonic, nonchalant charm (the line between earnest and contrived blurs during some of his overly-self-deprecating lines about being older, now). Perhaps Traffic's producer, his fellow 90's-indie-icon Beck, helped him see the light, towards allowing the Jicks' equal footing in acheiving the proper atmosphere for Traffic's more straight and simple yet still provocative platter, thus power-washing away Trash's murk with dashes of punchy bass and purring organs.
While those summery organs may cradle away the potential edge of Malkmus' still-scorched guitar extractions, that's no complaint, since he seems to have re-realized the potency of simple, pure pop melodies; no need to bury them in sludgey psychedelic roars or lose them in overwrought structures, let them shine. Traffic's ditties (that's right, more so 'ditties' then 'jams') allow enough space for those docile organs and wispy-voiced female counterparts to harmonize with Malkmus' slack croon, still a voice that’s never proven dynamic, but perhaps because it’s always had to compete with other inclinations, whether against a prickly lo-fi grime or his own grandiose guitar wails.
The good news and the bad news is that the overall vibe of these songs still doesn't stretch far beyond the usual Malkmus comfort zones. And it's not that I'm saying it's all that useful to compare one songwriter to another, but I have to remark how refreshing it was this year when fellow long-time/long-hailed indie rocker Thurston Moore took an almost complete left-turn in style and aesthetic for his most recent solo album... Different strokes...
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks play the Majestic Theatre, tomorrow (9/20), with Holy Sons.