Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Unknown Mortal Orchestra is the lo-fi funk brainchild of Ruban Nielson, former guitarist of Mint Chicks, a band that built a following in their native New Zealand, moved to America and disintegrated. Nielson, a Portland-based Kiwi transplant, has traded in the power pop chops he formerly wielded for a sound built from breakbeats, filtered, often indecipherable vocals, and psychedelic riffs of bluesy influence. The infectious guitar loop over sampled drums of UMO's single "Ffunny Ffrends" is responsible for the buzz that's seen the band through to their 2011 self-titled full length release on Fat Possum.
The fuzzy feel of Unknown Mortal Orchestra's production invokes the image of Nielson sitting in his bedroom and recording the best of what he comes up as it happens, stopping before he over thinks it. The sound that arises is a mixture of formats, throwing back to Motown rhythms in the way of classic hip hop, yet preserving the effected Telecaster wail of rockabilly without falling into its traditional patterns. There's more too; R&B, garage, and the occasional country tinge find their way into the blend.
Critics have compared Ruban's singing voice with Paul McCartney, Prince, and even Captain Beefheart, though the layers of processed, wailing falsettos that serve as vocals on Unknown Mortal Orchestra tracks take far less command of the forefront than those classic frontmen. Instruments and voices blur together into a composite sound that's orchestral, noisy, and warm. The aesthetic of UMO's videos to date embody the same roughness in soft light, fading from one gloomy expression to the next.
As the best sounds often do, the project arose from Nielson's personal headspace. Having created it for his own purposes, UMO songs weren't stage ready until he assembled a supporting band comprised of bassist Jake Portrait and drummer Julien Ehrlich. Currently touring the US, the live band recreates Nielson's home production with a little more rock n' roll, manifested in added mild drum fills and accents, and bass with a little more swing than swagger. Despite the shift, all the charm of Nielson's songwriting remains in tact.