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Show Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra [Lincoln Hall; Chicago; 6/6/15]

Unknown Mortal Orchestra are difficult to pin down. This is something that has only increased in magnitude over time. On his recently released third album Multi-Love, the band’s primary architect Ruban Nielson might as well have titled it multi-influence as he takes a signature lo-fi psych-pop sound and infuses it with elements of funk, soul, blues, disco and much more. The one thing holding it all together is the record’s overarching thematic exploration of polyamory (hence the title) and the impact one woman had when she joined Nielson’s already established family. While stylistic expectations and societal norms may be upended, the overall focus stays strong and prevents things from totally going off the rails. A similar approach has made its way into UMO’s most recent live shows, and was on full display this past Saturday night for a wild and funky set at Lincoln Hall.


Prior to Saturday, I had seen Unknown Mortal Orchestra perform twice. Both times were at outdoor music festivals, which was nice because their sound pairs nicely with nature. Yet fests are also built as variety pack samplers to give you a good taste of what an artist has to offer but may not be the truest representation of what they’d do in a typical show in the confines of a dark venue. What struck me about those previous UMO sets was how genuinely relaxed Nielson and his bandmates were, to the point of spending about a quarter of the time seated on the stage with legs crossed just playing guitar. Sometimes it’d be in service of the song, while other times it’d be part of some extended jam session that included effects pedals and plenty of knob turning. It only took two songs at Lincoln Hall before Nielson sat down, turning the outro of II track “From the Sun” into a jittery, radiating piece of white noise. While the idea was smartly conceived, particularly since that song has plenty of room for deviation from the recorded version, the execution in this case was a little less than ideal. Playing with effects simply for the sake of playing with effects can come across as a bit aimless if you’re not careful, creating the reaction of, “just end this already.”


In contrast, a little more than halfway through the set the band took single “So Good at Being in Trouble” and extended it to encompass some incredible guitar and drum solos. When a band fires on all cylinders like that, it can make for a truly transcendent experience, as this certainly was. It also served as a great reminder of how ridiculously talented of a guitarist Nielson is. No matter if he was jamming for fun or playing an intricate part because that’s what the song required, the way his fingers would fly around the fret board and pluck those strings was almost always a treat to behold. The real shame is that he didn’t do more of it. Of course when your set primarily focuses on your new album which doesn’t feature as many guitars let alone solos, there’s no point in trying to shoehorn them in. Actually Nielson put down his guitar towards the end of the night for a synth-heavy performance of “Stage or Screen,” which freed him up to climb atop some speakers on the side of the stage as well as pull off a funky spin into the splits as a capper. That was arguably the most fun he had all show, though the loud cheers from the crowd and people yelling “Ruban!” kept him smiling for much of the evening.


Speaking of the crowd, their passion and energy was nothing short of infectuous. There was an older gentlemen standing in front of me, likely in his mid-50s and dressed like he had just come from a fancy dinner, who spent most of the show jumping around, dancing and just generally having the time of his life. He might not have looked like the average Unknown Mortal Orchestra fan, but in many respects he showed more enthusiasm than a lot of people who are half his age. Part of me wonders if his fanaticism pushed others to more freely express their own by dancing and singing along. Things really picked up at the end of the set, with the one-two punch of 2010 single “Ffunny Ffrends” and 2015 single “Multi-Love” subtly placing emphasis on how much UMO has evolved over these last few years. The double-barreled encore of new songs “Necessary Evil” and “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” then offered up a closing salvo, the gleeful smiles and writhing bodies connecting with each melody to ensure the future of this project will be anything but unknown.

Buy Multi-Love from Jagjaguwar or via iTunes.

Set List
Like Acid Rain
From the Sun
How Can You Luv Me
Ur Life One Night
Thought Ballune
The World Is Crowded
So Good at Being in Trouble
Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark)
Stage or Screen
Ffunny Ffrends
Necessary Evil
Can’t Keep Checking My Phone



Lollapalooza 2013: Saturday Recap

After what was a pleasant and somewhat inspiring first day of Lollapalooza, Saturday was supposed to be the “big one.” When single day tickets went on sale a few months ago, Saturday was the first to sell out, and almost immediately. What was its biggest selling point? Mumford & Sons, probably. And maybe a little help from The Lumineers. I had a feeling the crowds were going to be huge for both bands, and I only moderately like them, so naturally I avoided going anywhere near that stage. I felt almost rewarded as a result. Of course the entire day was rewarding, even though I got a later start than I was hoping for or anticipated. The extra time I took to sleep in really helped me make it through the day, I think. As a reminder, though service is all but nonexistent in Grant Park this weekend, I am doing my best to live tweet about every act that I see. If I don’t do it during the day, I catch up at the end of the night. Just so you know for reference purposes. Anyways, here’s a short bit about the things I saw on Saturday.

My day started with Charles Bradley. He’s widely regarded as a soul legend, and his set showed that in spades. I could hear the horns blaring and his powerful wail well outside the walls of Grant Park, and for a minute I thought I’d accidentally stumbled into Chicago’s world famous Blues Fest instead. Even though he’s getting up there in age, Bradley commanded the crowd with his strong presence and even broke out a dance move or two. It may be a long way from his early days as a James Brown impersonator, but at some point in time there will hopefully be a Charles Bradley impersonator just making his way up the ladder to legendary status as well.

As I started to walk across the field to the stage just behind me for Matt & Kim, I ran into problems. Specifically, I hit a wall of people. The crowd stretched back extremely far at the Petrillo stage, so far that I couldn’t see the stage from my vantage point and couldn’t hear the band too well either. Whenever I run into that situation, as I did with Imagine Dragons on Friday, I figure there’s no point in watching or listening if I can’t watch and can barely listen. So I wandered over to Ellie Goulding’s stage about 30 minutes before her set was scheduled to start. I could kind of hear Matt & Kim from there, and enjoyed renditions of “Cameras” and “Let’s Go”, mixed with bits and pieces of some interesting and odd covers.

I think Ellie Goulding is one of the most talented mainstream pop acts today, and her energetic set had the huge crowd going totally nuts. I was packed in tighter than any other spot I’ve been in all weekend, and everyone around me was jumping up and down, singing along, clapping, and other things you do at an overly enthusiastic pop show. For her part, Goulding kept the mood light and upbeat, and she certainly sounded great. She covered Elton John’s “Your Song” at one point, and it actually felt both earnest and earned.

I’ve seen Unknown Mortal Orchestra one time before, and it was an okay set. At a certain point last time I thought it started to wear thin and get a little boring, so my expectations were lower when venturing in for a second round. The crowd turned out to be one of the lighter ones of the day, primarily because there was a lot going on at all the other stages. But the band made the most of their time and actually impressed me with a bouncy, pleasant and rather psychedelic set that was really strong on technical chops. Maybe it’s the fact that they released their second album and the new songs are working better for me, or playing a lot more live shows has made them a much stronger band overall, but whatever it is it’s working. The extended outro to “Ffunny Ffrends” featured a rather great guitar solo from frontman Ruban Nielson, and left the crowd in a great mood.

A few records and a few hundred live performances under their belts, Foals know exactly what they’re doing, and how to achieve results with a crowd. Their set builds slowly and steadily, an energetic instrumental one minute, a ballad with a soaring chorus the next, and a heavy rock cut after that. They covered all their bases, and though they dispatched one of their best songs “My Number” early on in their set (which drew a great dance party in the crowd), it was “Inhaler” that finally was the knockout punch. It was the perfect introduction to Foals if you’re not very familiar with their music, or had never seen them live before. The list of new converts at that show has to be pretty huge.

This was the fifth or sixth time I’ve seen The National perform live, and with each new experience I’m treated to what feels like an improved version of the band I saw the previous time. At this point I think they’ve been around long enough and know each other well enough to truly click on stage, even in a festival setting that doesn’t work as well with their particular brand of nuance. Frontman Matt Berninger is certainly working the stage a lot more, breaking away from his perpetual stance behind a mic stand to hang out on the sides for a few minutes. Some tricks, like Berninger running into the crowd during “Mr. November,” are long-time band staples, but they’re highlights that continue to thrill, so why stop? The new material sounds great, and the crowd was very receptive through it all. Certainly one of the day’s highlights.

After all the turmoil that hit the scheduling at The Grove stage on Saturday, what with Azealia Banks being forced to cancel due to vocal chord problems and Death Grips refusing to show up for whatever reason, the band Haim got either a really good or a really bad deal depending on how you look at it. The printed version of the schedule has them going on stage around 3:30 up against Matt & Kim, Court Yard Hounds and Local Natives. Not exactly bad bands to be up against. Their actual set time wound up being at 7:15, which was more prime time, but up against Kendrick Lamar and The Lumineers. So it wasn’t too surprising that the crowd for Haim wasn’t massive, though it was pretty decent sized overall. The three sisters played material off their EP and some new songs from their forthcoming debut album. Overall their set was a whole lot of fun, that includes the highly amusing sisterly stage banter. All of them also proved to be incredibly talented musicians, and a couple of small jam sessions they had included some face-melting guitar solos and wild bass work. I saw the band perform again at an aftershow a few hours later, and they were even better. I’ll have a report on that later. Be on the lookout, Haim is going to be huge.

With the sea of people over at Mumford & Sons, it was nice to simply stroll up to a close spot for The Postal Service. As Ben Gibbard had said in a tweet earlier in the day, their Lollapalooza set and their subsequent Sunday night aftershow would be their final two shows ever, so in my logic, why would you miss that. It helps I love their one record Give Up to the point where I’ve got every lyric memorized. A lot of people do, apparently, because the entire set was like one massive sing-along. The only time the crowd stopped singing was when they played some of the b-sides and previously unreleased material that appeared on the deluxe 10th anniversary reissue of the album. Overall the arrangements were very similar to what they sounded like on record, though they were made a little more buoyant and full at times which was nice. There were extended versions of some hits, particularly “Such Great Heights” and the closer “Brand New Colony.” A cover of Beat Happening’s “Our Secret” was a nice additional treat. Jenny Lewis was in many ways a jack of all trades during the show, playing a number of different instruments in addition to her supporting vocals role. Gibbard was his typical self, upbeat and honest, and he seemed to really appreciate how much this band and their one record means to so many people. This might be the official end to The Postal Service, but I can’t express how happy it made me to finally see it performed live. I’ll take them over Mumford & Sons any day of the week.

Album Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra [Fat Possum/True Panther]

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.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – How Can U Luv Me

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Little Blu House

Buy “Unknown Mortal Orchestra” from Amazon

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