My first and only exposure to Unknown Mortal Orchestra was two years ago at CMJ, where I saw them on two different occasions. The first was in a tall glass building in Manhattan. I had to take an elevator to the umpteenth floor, and I was dumped out in a lounge room that was full of weird shrubbery. It was a dinky stage plopped down in the corner of the room, and the sound system was shit. UMO came on, and I couldn’t really form a valid opinion. Their sound was dense, but I felt better speakers were required to properly hear their muddled guitar dirges.
The next day, I raced through the subway to get from mid-town to Brooklyn Bowl with the intent of seeing Gotye. I got there right when Gotye was supposed to start, but UMO was on the stage instead. The set times had been switched. Having seen them the previous day, and being kind of blown about my needless rushing, I made a game-time decision to leave after their first song or two to check out someone I hadn’t seen yet. Fast-forward two years, and I’m going to see them again, mainly due to my interest in openers Wampire and Foxygen.
I received an e-mail from my friend who would be attending the show with me about what had taken place at the previous two Foxygen shows. The first was a review of the Chapel Hill show in North Carolina, written for Speakers in Code, which described Foxygen’s set as “a hot, and disappointing mess.” There was also a forwarded e-mail with a personal account from a mutual friend who had attended the following night’s Baltimore show, describing it as similarly disappointing and weird, mentioning all kinds of mishaps and shenanigans. I like to be surprised at least a little when I go to a show, so I quickly shut my laptop because the details were too thick. I ventured to Rock and Roll Hotel expecting a full-on train wreck from Foxygen as I gave a half-hearted second chance to UMO.
Wampire, having just been signed to Polyvinyl Records, open the show. These dudes seem seasoned and well put-together. Wampire had taken a year off and were in the middle of coming up with a new sound when they opened for Starfucker, who shares their label and hometown of Portland. After their discovery at that show, in true Portlandia fashion, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s bassist Jacob Portrait produced their new album, Curiosity, which hits shelves in a couple months. You’d think that would imply huge amounts of guitar distortion and vocal effects, but quite the contrary. It’s very crisp guitar rock with a few flecks of grit here and there.
Wampire is another band that consists of two people, Rocky Tinder and Eric Phipps, but tour with a backing band. Tinder and Phipps take turns singing songs, but ultimately both sound like a washed-out Julian Casablancas. “The Hearse,” their single, is especially explosive, with a long lull in the middle of the song that chugs back to life with marching drums, glorious synths, and some sweet guitar riffs. Since they landed themselves on Polyvinyl, I’m expecting big things from them because their sound is going in the right direction.
Moment of truth. Foxygen take the stage, and Sam France is wearing what looks like a wizard cloak and white face paint. They open with “Make It Known,” and Sam is full of life, all over the stage, singing, chanting, and screaming. The juxtaposition between the previous nights’ reports and what I’m witnessing lead me to believe that he just isn’t the most balanced person. When “On Blue Mountain” begins, with those held organ notes, Sam starts singing smoothly and calmly, and it’s like the past few days vanished and didn’t even matter. Back-up lyrics and harmonies are right on cue in high-pitched Muppet grandeur, and not a vocal squeal or churn is missed.
And, oh god, the tempo changes are executed perfectly. “San Francisco” and “Shuggie” go by without a hitch, and the band really hits their groove. By the time they get to the title track, “We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic,” Sam France is in full Jagger swagger, and the Ambassadors of Peace are no longer the Embarrassers of Piss. Their set ends, as the album ends, with Sam laughing sadistically over “Oh No 2” before bringing the love to the whole crowd. What seemed like what was going to be Foxygen’s impending youthful demise is awesomely averted.
By the time Unknown Mortal Orchestra takes the stage, it’s your typical sardine-stuffed sold-out Rock and Roll Hotel show that I’ve been more and more disenfranchised with ever since I couldn’t get a proper dance on at the Chromatics show there this past summer. Still, they come out spewing guitar wash all over the audience, and the crowd laps it up. They start the show with material from their first album, and it takes them awhile to get going. Ruban Nielson’s singing is shaky at best, and there are some squeals coming from the mic. It isn’t until third song, “Bicycle” that he seems to get some confidence in his voice. There is a Wayne Coyne sort-of weathered huskiness to the strained way in which he sings this song.
“No Need For A Leader,” the first song off the new album that’s played, picks up the pace with a raucous gait, and the song reminds me of some Van Halen-esque rock and roll. The same pattern of finishing most songs with a louder and faster jam ends this time with a full stop, and the crowd whistles and hollers. It’s as if the beginning of every song is a reboot to get back to the jam. When they go back to songs off their first album halfway through the set, Neilson’s voice finally seems warmed up.
The new material takes off again with a personal favorite, “From The Sun.” Slowing it down makes it more dynamic in this instance. This song has some funky angst to it. Lyrics like “I’m so lonely but I can never quite reach the phone” eventually transfer to bluesy guitar meandering that matches in sentiment. The new songs outshine the old. It’s as if more consideration went into the singing of the new ones live because they’re much more rich in character.
Near the end of their set, the staple “Ffunny Ffriends” is played and is definitely their best song performed. It just goes to show how nothing is ever finished and that there’s always room for improvement. They are maturing on their new album, it being a lot more diverse and interesting than the older. But, they played twice as many songs off of their first album as they did off the second. Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s growth is slow. They may still be anxious and unsure of themselves, but they’re making strides. They prove it in the recordings, and they’re sounding better and better live. I’d say they exceeded my second chance expectations, and I’d like to give them a third.