EP Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra - 'Blue Record'

Following writing, recording, and touring the critically acclaimed and bitter-sweet sophomore album ‘II’ you’d think that Unknown Mortal Orchestra would relish a long break from music. However, Ruban Nielson and co refuse to slow down and lose momentum as they prepare to drop their second release of the year in the form of ‘Blue Record’, a 5-track acoustic EP that sees Nielson not just “stripping down” UMO tracks you know and love but giving them a complete make-over with his unique approach to acoustic composition.

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The EP eases you into Nielson’s world with the familiar finger picking leanings of ‘Swim & Sleep (Like a Shark)’. Nielson’s flawless harmonies highlight the honest and gentle nature of the song which sees Nielson admitting to wanting to be like a shark just so he can “hide till the end of time”. Nielson’s spacious and harmony centred approach to ‘Swim & Sleep (Like a Shark)’ gives the track a new dimension, putting more emphasis and focus on the sentiments of the song instead of the pop-y hooks drowned in psychedelic effects. However, the track that follows is where true reinvention can be found on the EP. ‘Faded in the Morning Time’ is the most notably “stripped” track out of the 5 featured.  Where ‘II’s version begins with an abrasive beat phased to overdrive, ‘Blue Record’s version starts as you’d expect: with a humble count in from the illusive man himself. The piercingly distorted riff found on ‘II’s version surprisingly lends itself to the acoustic guitar with ease without feeling dumbed down or forced. Nielson manages to completely adapt what was once a harsh document of a hazy morning into a romanticised account of the experience, dropping the tortured vocals for a softer delivery filled with nostalgia. Being one of the gentler tracks from ‘II’, ‘So Good at Being in Trouble’ remains unchanged musically as the melody transfers from the more auxiliary version to this unplugged rendition smoothly. Although the foundations of this song still remain, it’s the lack of rhythm and groove that really changes it. This version feels like a more personal affair as it’s just Nielson and his guitar telling this heart-breaking story of love, loss, and loneliness.

As well as giving his own tracks the acoustic treatment; Nielson makes room for two covers that round off the EP. The first of the two being a straight forward cover of the Dirty Projectors track ‘Swing Low Magellan’ which slots in perfectly among Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s material. The cover may capture the delicate nature of the track but there’s a distinct lack of personality to it as Nielson chooses to accurately mirror the original version instead of putting his own slant on it. However, EP closer, Beck’s ‘Putting It Down’, is everything a cover should be. Nielson makes this song his own by bending sound, warping vocals and playing around with the speed of the track to match the droopy and broken sentiments of the song.

‘Blue Record’ is a testament to Nielson’s song writing. Even when his tracks are stripped of everything that makes them unique, the distorted hip-hop beats and cosmic effects, there’s still the tell-tale signs of quality song writing left behind.