Live: Unknown Mortal Orchestra Make A Name For Themselves At Glasslands


Unknown Mortal Orchestra w/Man/Miracle, Blouse, and Hospitality
Thursday, September 15

Better than: The cab ride from the West Village to Williamsburg.

“Let me introduce you to my friends,” announced Unknown Mortal Orchestra lead singer Ruban Nielson to the full house at Glasslands on Thursday night. As the New Zealand native introduced his bandmates—bassist Jake Portrait, and teenage drummer Julien Ehrlich —an anticipatory buzz shot through the crowd. The Portland-based trio is getting ready to head out on tour with the chillwave kingpins Toro y Moi, which on the surface seems like an odd fit; they’re a rock outfit that draws on psychedelia and funk. But the versatility of their sound has brought in chillwave adherents, and it wouldn’t be too surprising if there were other people who were willing to make taste exceptions in order to appreciate UMO’s sprightly take on rock and roll.

The set started shortly after midnight and opened up with the band’s new single “Little Blu House,” which nearly simulates an intergalactic journey into some unknown, sonic field. While the eventual guitar solo was a bit offcourse, Nielson eventually led us back to home plate and into a charged rendition of “Thought Ballune.” Nielson’s crooning, which can sometimes veer into a higher pitch, plays well off Portrait’s blatantly Motown-influenced bass lines, particularly on songs like “Strangers Are Strange” and the disco-tinged “How Can You Luv Me.”

“Ffunny Frends,” the first track off the record and one of the first UMO songs to circulate earlier this year, has the loose feel of a jam session. The song fuses Nielson’s guitar licks and commanding, if distant, vocals with Erhlich’s potent percussion into a track that captures UMO’s disparate influences by heading into uncharted, yet somewhat familiar pop territory. While the teenaged Ehrlich eases into his percussion parts—in such a way that it’s hard not to wonder what he’d have thrown down during high school jazz band sessions—Portrait maintains the flow and the bass drives the melody.

Blouse, also from Portland, made their Brooklyn debut with ease. The five-piece band’s synths and ethereal vocals recall the goth-pop of the late ’80s, but the classically “rock” elements—chugging bass, harmonizing guitars—offer a glimpse at what heaven might sound like, even to those of us who aren’t really sure it exists. Their last number, “Firestarter,” picked up the pace just enough to get some of the stock-still audience members to dance.

Hospitality (filling in for Woven Bones) was up next. The female-fronted Brooklyn quartet, which just signed to Merge, started with a quiet, pulsating number that shifted from modern Americana into a more rhythm-driven take on classic rock and roll. As their set progressed, so did the tempo; one guitar breakdown even unexpectedly recalled the Roger Waters epoch of Pink Floyd. But there was still texture to their set; soft, intimate folk numbers would progress into harder tracks, and the audience would similarly shift from silent reflection to careless dancing.

Critical bias: Blouse is one of my favorite new artists on one of my favorite labels, Captured Tracks. UMO’s self-titled debut is a top ten contender for my Best of 2011 list.

Overheard: A Ke$ha ringtone. (Really?!)

Random notebook dump: Nielson’s guitar strap looked like it was the first one he received as a child; his instrument seemed like an awkwardly high-placed suit of armor, reminiscent of Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer.