The name Unknown Mortal Orchestra is only partially correct at best.
While it has been confirmed that the members of the group are indeed human and therefore subject to death, one could hardly consider them an orchestra given that the entire idea was originally conceived as a solitary bedroom recording project by singer-guitarist Ruban Nielsen.
Then again, taking into account the size of the late night Sunday crowd they drew last week at the Central Social Aid & Pleasure Club in Santa Monica, one wouldn’t really call them unknown anymore either.
After serving nine years as a member of New Zealand noisenik champions the Mint Chicks, Nielsen relocated to Portland permanently and began to work on a set of songs that would separate himself from the performance-art punk of his past. The end result was last year’s stunning self-titled debut, a quirky collection of vintage vinyl sounds, simple psych-pop melodies, and the sort of dusty boom-bap breaks usually reserved for early-90’s hip-hop records. Even as it pulled together styles from previous decades, the album still felt remarkably fresh, so much so that it seemed as if it might be difficult to duplicate in a live setting.
Rather than recreate here, Nielsen instead opted to expand. Rounded out with Jacob Portrait on bass and his own brother (and former Mint Chick) Kody behind the drums, the trio turned their usual three minute sing-alongs into spaced-out hypnotic grooves.
The warped rumble of opener ‘Strangers Are Strange‘ came with an extended intro that locked into a mind-numbing trance, whereas the robotic rhythm section that drove ‘Little Blu House‘ eventually unraveled into an interstellar odyssey.
‘Boy Witch‘ may be the most forgettable track they have released, but on stage it shot off as a surging surf-rock epic with driving drums and a series of scathing chicken-scratch solos.
The most redeeming quality of the whole Unknown Mortal Orchestra mystique is without a doubt Nielsen’s uncanny ear for an infectious hook. Those hooks rose to the surface amidst the cosmic chaos of extra improvisation, whether it was with the retro-soul longing of ‘How Can You Luv Me‘ or the laid-back summer funk behind ‘Jello & Juggernauts‘. Their breakout single ‘Ffunny Ffriends‘ was delivered with an extra level of volume, and the contagious chorus no doubt wormed its way into the Monday morning routine of at least half the audience members.
In addition to playing nearly every tune in their brief catalogue, Nielsen and company sprinkled in some interesting covers that spoke not only to the oddball influence behind their recorded output, but also to the upscale aspiration of their act. ‘Lucifer Sam‘ is an early Syd Barrett-penned Pink Floyd piece about a possessed cat that they rolled out with the right amount of dread-filled derangement, while a suitably freakish rendition of Can’s krautrock classic ‘Vitamin C‘ closed out the show in style and at the same time hinted toward the heady experimentation that will surely define their next release.
That release is supposedly written already, and judging by the other-worldly direction the band appears to be headed in, it could just be a matter of time before they will have to change their name altogether.