Unknown Mortal Orchestra's Ruban Nielson has a tattoo of an eye on his neck – specifically, on his throat chakra, said to rule communication. Somewhat surprisingly, the 32-year-old New Zealand-born, Oregon-dwelling musician claimed to music website Pitchfork recently that he is not a hippy This, despite his wife and two children having lived in a midwife's yurt for a time, and despite Nielson having the kind of freewheeling attitude to life management that saw him sign a record deal on a napkin in a bar. "I eat fried chicken on the road," he avows.

Like fellow Antipodeans Tame Impala, and like fellow west coasters Ariel Pink and Ty Segall (plus forthcoming tourmates Foxygen), Nielson is, undoubtedly, a time-lagged child of the psychedelic era; a mind-alteration lifer. His past in a punk band (New Zealand's Mint Chicks) irrupts only occasionally into Unknown Mortal Orchestra's gently lysergic pop songs – songs that seem to just get better and better, refracting both the Beatles and Led Zeppelin along with gnarlier psych fare.

We're living through unexpectedly tie-dyed times in American rock music (cf Ariel Pink, Animal Collective et al); Neilson's debut, 2011's Unknown Mortal Orchestra, was dazed, raw and melodic, earning it a great many plaudits. That bedroom recording came to renown in a very 21st-century way, however. Neilson – then working a nine to five – posted an anonymous song online in 2010, only to have Ffunny Ffrends blow up in the blogosphere, a heady sequence of events which led to that napkin in that bar.

By contrast, II (released on a new label) was constructed in snatches on phones while Neilson, having assembled a band, played its predecessor around the world in the elevated company of bands such as Grizzly Bear. II begins blithely but ominously. "Isolation/ It can put a gun in your hand," chorus a number of Nielsons, multitracked into a kind of queasy harmony on From the Sun. The scritching acoustic guitar is intimate and the melody quite beatific, but Neilson isn't toting a flowers-in-the-hair version of the 60s ideal. Rather, he is homesick and lonely and partying a little more than is necessary: "I'm so tired/ But I can never lay down my head," he rues.

Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark), the album's first single, also conjoins sleep, prettiness and unease. A blissed-out plea for a state of suspended animation that's not far off death, the single's cover art features the bloodied face of a baby (presumably Nielson's youngest). The guitar melody showcases what an uncommonly pristine player this former garage punk can be.

To impugn such a fundamentally glazed record for losing focus as it nears the out-groove is a little like berating a shark for being snaggle-toothed. But as II unfurls, there are longueurs where Nielson can get a little vague and inward-directed. Unknown Mortal's secret weapon, though, is a kind of fried funk that grounds even Nielson's most whimsical passages. The instantly lovable So Good at Being in Trouble is, once again, breezy and downhearted ("She was so good at being in trouble/ So bad at being in love," it sighs); elsewhere, there are wah-pedal workouts such as One at a Time, in which some brass joins the hairy be-in. Perhaps Neilson's throat chakra tattoo blinks open and shut; mumbling into a Dictaphone one minute, communicating eloquently the next.

Contributor

Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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