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Unknown Mortal Orchestra - IC-01 Hanoi Music Album Reviews

Joined by his brother, father, and the Vietnamese musician Minh Nguyen, Ruban Nielson throws off his habitually weighty themes and digs into a refreshingly raw, heady session of psychedelic rock.

Over the past two Unknown Mortal Orchestra albums, Ruban Nielson has tackled thorny topics that fall well outside the scope of most indie-rock outfits: primal urges, modern alienation, consumerism, and most notoriously, polyamory. At times, these investigations produced some of UMO’s most fetching music to date, though they also resulted in a discomfiting sense of nakedness. Nielson’s emphasis on these themes in his songwriting, along with forays into genres like soul and R&B, at times overshadowed his formidable talent for conjuring psychedelic realms with his six-string and an array of effects.

While recording Sex & Food in far-flung locales like Auckland, Reykjavik, Seoul, and Portland, Oregon, Nielson, brother Kody, and father Chris (as well as UMO member Jacob Portrait) also spent a period of time in Hanoi. Holed up in Phu Sa Studios, one July night they all jammed with local musician Minh Nguyen. IC-01 Hanoi presents a visceral, smoky, casual session that cooks together fairly tumultuous moods over the course of its concise runtime.

You can hear the steam being blown off in the roiling opener “Hanoi 1” as Nielson shreds with a newfound sense of freedom, no longer hemmed in by his own songs and arrangements. If only such rage lasted longer than 80 seconds. From there, UMO and Nguyen amble through many different moods. “Hanoi 2” moves like a post-meal stroll, giving plenty of space for Nielson’s wah-wah-heavy exploration. His playing here feels less like a solo and more like a soliloquy, toggling between earthy and spacy. On the disco strut of “Hanoi 4,” his string scrapes become another rhythmic and textural element.

That the press sheet cites electric-era Miles Davis is no surprise, as Nielson’s guitar throughout hews closest to the former’s muted trumpet tone: fuzzy, smeared, yet also oddly tactile. At certain points, his guitar tone lacerates like some lost session from A Tribute to Jack Johnson. And when it’s not Nielson’s guitar doing the heavy lifting, then it’s Chris Nielson who sends his saxophone and flugelhorn through a battery of effects (as on “Hanoi 5”), creating a swirling, disorienting soundworld. Beyond the horns and effects, the band also emulates Davis and his penchant for exploring brooding, fulminous moods. Nguyen’s eerie sáo trúc solo on “Hanoi 3” even brings to mind the flute-laced dark ambience of Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly.”

That brief entrance of sáo trúc also reveals that IC-01 Hanoi goes well beyond the basics of the pat East-meets-West cultural exchange (see any 1960s rock album with a sitar thrown on top). Even when Nguyen switches to the bullfrog twang of the đàn môi, it’s not to showcase another exotic sound against the UMO psych-rock backdrop, but to add a strange and swampy depth to the proceedings, pairing well with the shrieking saxophone and thrumming bass at the furious climax of the epic exploration “Hanoi 6.” While not necessarily essential to the UMO catalog, Hanoi finds the band reveling in its psychedelic roots and exploring a primeval darkness that their songs often only hint at.

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