Published Apr 03, 2018On their first three albums, Unknown Mortal Orchestra had a way of flitting between funk, soul, psych and rock effortlessly, where warm melodies mingled with slick, yet warped, lo-fi production in inventive ways. While the band touch on many of ideas that made them so enduring in the past on their fourth record, Sex & Food, too often it feels underdeveloped and lacks the usual balance of swagger and sensitivity.
Following the stammering intro track "A God Called Hubris," Unknown Mortal Orchestra bring back the compressed psychedelic-pop sound explored on their 2011 debut with "Major League Chemicals," where band mastermind Ruban Nielson's indecipherable, scratchy voice is knotted within his frazzled guitar playing. Nielson's signature serpentine finger-picking technique on "The Internet of Love (That Way)" is highly reminiscent of the slow-cooked jams of their second album, II, but instead of revealing its subdued rhythms in layers, the song about love in a disconnected, online society, predictably ambles along in a straight line.
Lead single "American Guilt" is built around a charged, crunchy stoner-rock riff and Nielson repeating "Oh no, here it comes, the American guilt" — it comes across as an unimaginative, half-baked political statement and forgoes any of Unknown Mortal Orchestra's usual emotional nuance. The spindly "Ministry of Alienation" toils around in the same tepid tone.
Still, there are a few bright spots that rank among Unknown Mortal Orchestra's best material. With its supple saxophone, groovy bass line and impossibly catchy backbeat, "Hunnybee," a fatherly love song for Nielson's daughter, is an absolute delight. It elevates itself in Nielson's candied chorus ("There's no such thing sweeter than a sting") and continues on with an achingly velvety guitar solo toward the song's final hurrah. Keyboard-driven "Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays" follows in 2015's Multi-Love's danceable disco-funk, culminating in Nielson's tendency to use his dry falsetto as a secondary instrument, mimicking and playing off his nimble riffs. The slow build-up into the blossoming climax of realization in "Not In Love We're Just High" is rejuvenating towards the end of the album.
While Sex & Food is a disjointed effort with Nielson's usual ingenuity wavering at times, fans will undoubtedly find favourites in certain tracks. It's an anxious, up-and-down affair, with moments of reward sprinkled within its lethargic haze. (Jagjaguwar/Outside)