Ruban Nielson, from the beginning of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, has dabbled musically in darker terrain. There’s always a sense of groove and a funky nature to the music he creates, but even on the lightest days the songs sound as if they were aged in a time capsule and then dipped in some kind of low acidic brine. Drums and guitars bright and crunchy like a french fry left in the fryer too long, while the vocals and bass muffled in mold and shredded gauze. It always felt like the work of a shy singer/songwriter that couldn’t hack things being too open and obvious. Hiding the truth and vulnerability in the songs with a studio wash of cassette hiss seemed like a defense mechanism, as opposed to just aesthetic. But with each successive UMO record Nielson seemed to pull a layer of lo fi crud off and reveal a bit more. II showed some real songwriting chops with “Swim and Sleep(Like A Shark)”. There was still psychedelic adventures to be had on that record, but Ruban Nielson revealed himself to be a true songwriter with emotional depth on that song. 2015s Multi-Love was his TMI-opus and his funkiest set yet. Radio-ready tracks mixed with Stevie Wonder-meets-Prince-grooves showed a huge progression from just five years before on that UMO debut.
It appears that Multi-Love was too much oversharing for Nielson, so he’s dialed down the personal stories and has gone back to acid-tinged songs about nothing in-particular. Sex & Food is a basic desires kind of album. It’s UMOs funkiest and most riff-heavy album yet, and Nielson doesn’t want to tell you about anything except having a good time and letting loose. That doesn’t mean this album is a vapid pocket of nothing; rather it’s a collection of grooves and fuzzy vocals and seriously good guitar licks about forgetting the outside world for a bit. It’s about enjoying the simple things, like sex & food, for an album side or two.
“A God Called Hubris” is under a minute, but it tells you a hell of a lot about where this record going. It’s like “….And The Gods Made Love” mixed with the Partridge Family which then leads right into the heavy grooves of “Major League Chemicals”, a barn burner of a rocker that is like Beck, Bogart, Appice got caught up in a Sly and the Family Stone binge with a bit of that Hendrix magic thrown on top. When I hear something like this from Ruban Nielson I like to imagine the same song but with that studio grime pulled off. I can’t help but think how much more rollicking a song it would be coming thru the speakers sonically pure and at maximum fidelity. “Ministry of Alienation” shows off Nielson’s compositional majesty. I think he’s one of the most underrated guitar players working today. There’s a jazzy fluidity to his playing that doesn’t get the props in deserves. This track shows that off well, as well as showing off his near perfect vocal harmonization. The song seems to fall into a bit of madness towards the end with modulating insanity and wheezing saxophone. “Hunnybee” is a song Nielson wrote for his daughter and it’s a beauty. All 70s AM airiness with a touch of Sign O The Times Prince whimsy. Prince has always haunted Nielson’s work, and he’s very much here on this record, both in the lighter moments and in the guitar workouts. “Chronos Feasts on His Children” is an acoustic track that reaches back into the late 60s for inspiration. Ten Years After with a heavy dose of acid for good measure. That leads into the first single “American Guilt”. This is a track I would love to hear without the studio-engineered distortion. It’s a biting and jagged rock song thru and thru, with Nielson laying down some heady guitar. I think it’s safe to say this is the heaviest UMO song to date. Every piston is firing on this one.
Elsewhere, “The Internet Of Love(That Way)” shows off more impressive guitar and tasteful electric piano in a grimy R&B slow jam and “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” opens like an early 70s Herbie Hancock track before opening into a beautifully disco-tinged track. Feel free to get funky, y’all. “How Many Zeros” lays the disco grooves on thick as well, albeit with a headier chord progression. “Not In Love We’re Just High” is an electric piano-led diss on feelings we may have under the influence. In a more just world this should be a radio hit. It’s catchy as hell and a downright beautiful soul track.
So while I would love to hear Ruban Nielson make an album of unabashed rock and soul sans the UMO grit and grime, Sex & Food is a great record. Nielson is one of the best songwriters working in the shadows of lo fi rock today. There’s a grandiose quality to his songs that he doesn’t want you to notice, but you should. It’s there and it’s wonderful. Just need to dig a little deep to find it.