NOT a live review of Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Manchester – Deaf Institute
May 6th 2013
Simon Bowcock can’t get into his local Unknown Mortal Orchestra show, and has to eat his popcorn all alone.
Back in February, I was blown away by some swirling, funky pop-psychedelia emanating from my DAB radio. It was one of those rare moments when you hear something for the first time which you instantly know is a bit special. Although it bore little relation musically, it reminded me of first hearing Arcade Fire almost a decade ago: “Have you heard it?” people would say without naming the band, and you’d know exactly who they were talking about.
I quickly picked up “II”, UMO‘s second album (yes, yes, I was late to this particular party). Having already started talking up the band with friends, I was initially disappointed to find that it sounded more lightweight than the heavier, slightly Led Zep-esque grooves I’d remembered from the radio. But its charms are more subtle and complex than I’d realised, and it gradually reeled me back in with its fuzzy production, captivating grooves and killer hooks, as well as its apparently brittle melodies which are actually so tough that they don’t lose their lustre. While the band’s album naming policy is possibly a further nod to Led Zeppelin, in reality “II” has a host of other influences, and that near-impossible quality of much great music: it sounds a bit like a great many things, but not too much like any of them. I listened to it obsessively for weeks. I’m still listening to it now, and only a little less obsessively. It is by turns light and heavy, and at the same time quite 60s and very modern (I know I’m contradicting myself, but I’m doing it because it’s true).
How was the Manchester gig? I wasn’t there so I can’t tell you. Tickets had already sold out when I first got wind of the band, three months in advance. I repeatedly pleaded with the band’s representatives to photograph and write about the gig (no reply). I even played my “get out of jail free” card, tapping up a very well placed contact in music ticketing (nothing doing). And I know I’m not alone in being frozen out by the band’s increasing popularity: UMO mainman Ruban Nielson was dismayed this weekend to find that fans had queued for hours only to end up locked out of their Leeds show.
Nielson, a Kiwi transplanted to Portland, photographs while on tour, and his pictures reveal a penchant for lo-fi visuals completely in tune with his music. He also tweets, and a quick check of his account on the night in question revealed they were about to warm up by playing live on Marc Riley’s 6Music show (where I had heard them in the first place). Riley introduced them as “the best band in the world at the moment”, and he meant it: he is stalking them to such an extent he has now seen them four times this week. They did five tunes: “Swim and Sleep..”, one of their most immediate tracks, which despite an initially tentative vocal captured the scuffed-up ethereal beauty it has on the album; “The Opposite of Afternoon”, it’s pleasant, pretty melody cloaking dark lyrics about physical carnage; the mellow, soulful laid-back “So Good at Being in Trouble”, which they spliced with “From the Sun”, a lateral hipswing-inducing ditty-cum-barnstormer; and “How Can You Love Me?”, one of the stronger tracks from their debut album.
Some of UMO’s upcoming shows are already being switched from small to mid-sized venues, just maybe starting them along the Arcade Fire trajectory of headlining megadomes one day. I’m determined to catch them before that happens.