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Better Than: Known Mortal Orchestra and Oxygen.
Last night Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Foxygen played to a sold out Bowery Ballroom. Though UMO was given top billing, it really could have been a shared bill — both are Jagjaguwar artists touring behind well received second albums that followed well received first albums, equally ascendent, equally heaped with expectation.
By the time Foxygen appeared in their ragtag assemblage, Bowery Ballroom was packed like and overstuffed bookshelf. Given the content of their excellent second album We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, I was expecting a mellow affair. Instead there was the pleasant surprise of a Jim Morrison meets Ed Sharpe flower-power bonanza. Frontman Sam France, wearing paisley slacks and oversized green sweatshirt, was a ball of tripped out energy, dancing irrelevantly and employing a variety of different voices including a baritone country croon and a banshee yell. He held the mic like it was a small furry animal trying to get loose from his hands and frequently smashed the cymbals with the poor thing.
Though Foxygen seems mainly to be the effort of France and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Rado, they had a full band last night, including a guest tambourine player. The resulting arrangements were like a psychedelic choir, especially on “Blue Mountain” when they sang “on blue mountain God will save us! put the pieces back together!” as lights blazed around the stage. Their single “San Francisco” was actually the most subdued moment of the set, with surgarcane harmonies supplied by their female backup singer who France joked would’nt give her real name because of the CIA.
They quickly reclaimed the energy with the excellent album’s title track and “In the Darkness.” (The latter sounds a lot like St. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and, interestingly, is also the first track on Foxygen’s album. Perhaps this is a conscious decision, but that’s a postmodernist rabbit hole for another day.) Also rather interesting is that they refrained from playing their popular song “No Destruction,” which includes the line “You don’t have to be an asshole, you’re not in Brooklyn anymore.” But these are minor qualms in what was a terrific set.
If Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s second album II is a wholly solid (if a bit uneven) record, last night’s show reflected that sentiment. Juxtaposed against the eat-some-acid energy of Foxygen, UMO’s set, played to a background of glowing red candles, lacked a certain vitality. That may have been due to the sound issues they appeared to be having, or it may be that (last night at least) Ruban Nielson seemed to be a much more impassioned guitar player than vocalist. But perhaps that’s because it would be hard for anything to outshine his guitar playing: the guy is technically brilliant.
They figured it out in the second half of the show, using “Bicycles” off their first record to launch into a slew of singles. “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” seems to be a perfect embodiment of what UMO does best: a singable hook structured around hero guitar playing. They followed with “So Good At Being In Trouble,” a song off II that seems to be a bit a of departure for them with a soulful croon replacing Nielson’s usually muted vocals. But wherever it departed to was a welcome destination — the crowd danced and sang along to this tune more than any other, jussst edging out “Ffunny Friends.”
The Crowd: Lots of of industry types and members of other bands.
Overheard in the Crowd: “I started the whole leaving New York in Friday trend.”
Random Notebook Dump: A lot of people, understandably, seemed to think Foxygen is from San Francsico; they’re originally from Los Angeles. Also opener Wampire was quite a surprise, check out their single “The Hearse.”