If you ask me, the name Unknown Mortal Orchestra sounds like something a heavy metal band would come up with. It falls somewhere along the lines of a whole mythological path that involves demons and gods and fighting outside of the realms of humanity. And yet the word “mortal” is in there, signifying purely human, even if it is preceeded by an “unknown”. In fact, that’s exactly one of the more interesting aspects about the band. A former member of the New Zealand band The Mint Chicks, Ruban Nielson moved out to Portland when they broke up and decided to quit the music business. As he searched for a legitimate job though, in his spare time he wound up creating some new music that was more messing around than it was something intended for people to hear. Still, he created the most barebones and non-descriptive Bandcamp profile that he could, and posted a couple tracks to it. Lo and behold, people listened and came inquiring about who this band was where the only information listed was that they were Portland-based. The hype built, and suddenly a normal job became less of a priority. Still, if you’re going to do music full time, live shows are a must, and Nielson couldn’t do it alone. He’s brought on a couple people to make it an actual band, and it wasn’t until recently that we discovered just who those people are. So the band name sticks to its principles for the most part. As for the orchestra, well, that’s something they can work on bringing to their next album. For their self-titled debut, the settled upon sound is that of lo-fi psychedelia with a sharp emphasis on polyblended rhythm. As you might expect, it fits them like a well-worn shirt.
The song that first got Unknown Mortal Orchestra known is the bouncy, spacey “Ffunny Ffriends”, and it appropriately opens the full length effort. It also establishes just how lo-fi this album is going to be. The percussion sounds like a live hip hop beat from the 80s looped over and over again, the guitars sound rustic with a psychedelic edge, and the vocals sound like they were recorded using a $5 microphone from Walgreens. Unlike some acts that purposely scuff up their clear sound to conform with what’s hot, this is one set of songs you know were recorded poorly in a home studio because that’s the best they could do with the money they had. The melody and the hooks still manage to seep through that shoestring budget though, which is a big reason why ears perk up when their songs are playing. Equally compelling is the second single and mid-album surprise “How Can U Luv Me”, which with its energy and funk-driven edge is awfully reminiscent of a 70s club hit. It’s one evolution past disco, but you can totally envision John Travolta getting down to it in some bell bottoms.
One of the most fascinating things about Unknown Mortal Orchestra is how the rhythms work on each song. There’s a very basic nature to every song that doesn’t waver much, if at all from the start to the end of a song. They may perform with a full or nearly full size drum kit, but not a whole lot beyond the snare is used across the record. The drums often rise above all the other elements on this self-titled album, but that’s because they serve an important function in the overall scheme of a song. Also, the arrangements are so bare-bones that it’s relatively easy to single out one part. Examine a track like “Bicycle”, in which the beat holds firmly as a mixture of kick drum, snare and shakers. It’s something that works well enough that perhaps somewhere down the road you might see an unauthorized mash-up record pairing the band with a hip hop artist a la James Blake and Drake or Jay-Z and Radiohead. Almost as compelling are Nielson’s vocals, which have an almost falsetto-like quality to them that borders on androgynous. With the goofy 60s vibe and doubled over, echo-filled harmonies of “Thought Ballune”, Of Montreal might be your easiest modern reference point, and the similarity of Nielson’s voice to Kevin Barnes’s only adds to that. Yet with the overall sonic quality and the way this record was mixed, sometimes the vocals get buried beneath a guitar riff as on “Nerve Damage!” or take on odd proportions as evidenced by “Boy Witch”. Still, the way that the singing often merges with or transforms a melody is one of the reasons why “Unknown Mortal Orchestra” works as a whole.
It’ll be interesting to see where Unknown Mortal Orchestra goes from here. With some label money now behind them and if their debut does well enough, some actual sonic quality might begin to slip into their songs. If we’ve learned anything from bands like tUnE-yArDs and Wavves in the last couple years, it’s that a higher fidelity of recording doesn’t have to harm your overall product and if the songs themselves are strong enough can even enhance it. The very old school analog way of recording this self-titled record does bring it a little extra charm in this case and is much more reminiscent of the styles at the time and era these songs are trying to evoke. Spanning only 9 tracks and clocking in around 30 minutes, the brevity of the record turns out to be one of its benefits. By no means is it perfect, but there’s definitely a quality vs. quantity thing going on that leaves little room for error and there’s very little of it as a result. A couple tracks go a little too far with an experimental bent, but primarily what you get is a rather catchy and minimalist psych-pop album from a trio of guys that appear to know exactly what they’re doing. That’s really all you need to win over plenty of hearts, minds and ears these days.