There are probably a few reasons people were so excited to see Unknown Mortal Orchestra play Club Congress on Monday, August 3. Since the band's ultra-DIY incarnation via a single song release on Bandcamp five years ago, the trippy indie pop group has found steady rotation in cool places with cool people. Their latest release, Multi-Love
, brings some solid funk roots into the mix, adding an obvious dance element to the band's jamminess.
So when they took the stage, yeah, I was pretty excited. Kicking off with "Like Acid Rain" from the new album, the band wasn't immediately engaging. There seemed to be a lack of connection between the four-piece outright, but the following "From the Sun" got the crowd going with a more familiar song. Despite the lyrics, which chant "isolation, it can put a gun in your hand," the song pushed the crowd with loud, driving bass. Frontman Ruban Nielson's artful guitar solos were engaging—both impressive to watch and hear as a departure from the album cut.
That push led into a funked up rendition of "How Can You Luv Me," which hints to the band's transformation overall. However, it wasn't until the drawn out drum solo at the end that the show really seemed to begin. The ebbing and swelling frenetic, improved beats clearly drove the energy in the room way up. Just watching Riley Geare go totally insane on his kit was enough to kickstart the crowd so by the time the song shifted to the Prince-like "Ur Life One Night," pretty much the entire audience was moving—and with good reason.
Playing a healthy blend of songs from their three albums, longtime fans and new kids stayed engaged through "The World is Crowded," "So Good at Being in Trouble," "Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)," and more. While technically stunning, it felt like UMO remained somewhat disjointed still—almost as if each member was in their own project that somehow magically coalesced into a cohesive outfit. It wasn't that anything sounded off, just that there was a distinct lack of chemistry and interaction among the band. I don't expect people to ham it up (or even be friends) on stage, but a casual glance would be cool.
All of that aside, each individual performance stood out enough to overlook it. "Stage or Screen" drove through with another strong percussive presence with a brief piano interlude. It was that kind of interlude where everyone knew what was coming next—that same song that earned UMO many of their fans to begin with: "FFunny FFriends." The perfectly entertaining and spot-on rendition ended with a ragtimey piano breakdown that garnered an unsolicited audience clap along.
The song slowly melted into another song that also seemed like the next logical step and what, I guessed, would be the show's closing track. "Multi-Love" recorded is an entirely addicting song that seems to form its own genre from several others cobbled together. I've probably listened to it over a hundred times in the past month or so, and clearly I wasn't alone because scads of outliers and barflys flooded back into the main room the second it began. Live, the song is just as good, if not better, embellished by Nielson's subtle snapping and more.
True, it was actually the finishing track, but the crowd cheered for an encore as they are wont to do, and the band obliged as they are wont to do. Out of the few bonus encore songs, "Can't Keep Checking My Phone" stood out with an indie-funk-pop bass line that seemed to be pulled from an of Montreal album with heavy moments of futuristic à la '80s synth that would suddenly shift to moments of stripped down straightforward rock.
If anything, UMO live clarified the band's allure, despite the somewhat distant stage presence. By their third album, the band has managed to meld genres into an indistinguishable slurry of smooth dance tracks. It feels psychedelic, it feels poppy, it feels funky. It's rock and roll, and it's electronic. It's something from every decade in the past 100 years. You know what? I'll be honest. I don't know what kind of music UMO plays anymore, but it's really good.