Psyche-rockers Unknown Mortal Orchestra from Portland, Oregon and Auckland, New Zealand hosted an intimate show at Barboza last month. The band were on tour promoting their upcoming album, Multi-Love, which was released on May 26th. Fresh songs include the clap-able dance beat and Prince-like vocals in “Ur Life One Night” and the staccato, almost jazzy drums of “Like Acid Rain.” The joy of seeing the band live is that their shows are a playground for experimentation. Rather than recreating pitch-perfect renditions of their records on stage, they take the opportunity to have some fun, extending solos and blending from one track to another.
Frontman Ruban Nielson tweaks his guitar with a spread of 15+ pedals at his feet, all the while purring effects-laden vocals. He’s able to recreate the dreamy quality of his records while still exploring new soundscapes, taking detours to stew on a riff longer here, or add a new progression there. Bassist Jake Portrait holds down the groove, giving Unknown Mortal Orchestra their undeniable earworm quality. Drummer Riley Geare jams out and lends vocals on some songs, and new keyboardist Quincy McCrary adds those unmistakable notes on the new album’s title track.
At first, the band’s songs seem dense and esoteric, and listeners uninterested in the reverberant, fuzzy stylings of psychedelia may turn a disinterested cheek. To the contrary, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s songs are intensely relatable and tug at universal heart strings. On their sophomore album II, The sun-drenched, happy-go-lucky jam “From the Sun” actually holds the lament, “I’m so lonely, but I can never quite reach the phone.” The nostalgic masterpiece “So Good at Being in Trouble” is a more readily melancholic track, but it’s bright chords still capture the unsuspecting ear. “Jello and Juggernauts” from their self-titled debut sounds celebratory with a tinge of sarcasm, as it explores “Fears and judgements I’ll never understand.” Nielson lyrically brings the mood up once in awhile, especially on their first single “Ffunny Ffriends” with it’s repetitive, head-nodding refrain, “I rely all of my life on my funny friends.” In the dark, sweaty basement room of Barboza, fans belted out the words to their favorite tracks, swaying along with their eyes closed. Unknown Mortal Orchestra cast a heavy spell over their audiences, and it’s this expert blending of the blissful with the real that keeps listeners coming back.
These songs are the work of an artist deeply interested in the ways people interact with one another, and the screens people put up to codify their language. New song “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” (and the last song of the night) explores a long distance relationship defined by its use of technology to stay connected. The protagonist struggles with texts and brief phone calls, and questions whether such a love is really genuine, or whether it’s face to face interaction which defines our reality. In an age when humans are able to catalogue our interactions better than ever, Neilson questions whether that very concreteness actually impinges upon our connections.
Portland’s Nurses, comprised of Aaron Chapman (vocals, guitar, keyboard) and John Bowers (backing vocals, keyboard) were the first to take the stage. Their songs featured fried vocals reminiscent of Seattle locals Naomi Punk, paired with keyboards and a drum track that would be at home on a Phantogram album. Instantly catchy, they got the crowd moving while still maintaining an artistically unique style. One of the song’s vocals were pitch-bent like the famous Imogen Heap song, but instead of the effect happening through a vocoder, Bowers was controlling Chapman’s voice on a guitar. It was fascinating watching him slide his fingers up and down the neck, twisting and bending the singer’s sound.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra:
From The Sun
How Can You Luv Me
Like Acid Rain
Ur Life One Night
The World is Crowded
So Good at Being in Trouble
Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)
Stage or Screen
Can’t Keep Checking My Phone