These ‘unknown’ rockers are ever-evolving

Unknown Mortal Orchestra ***** (5 stars out of 6); May 21 at Lille Vega

A torrential downpour and the hangover from a long bank holiday weekend didn’t stop Copenhagen’s hipster contingent flocking to Lille Vega on Tuesday to see indie rockers Unknown Mortal Orchestra.

Hailing from Portland, Oregon by way of New Zealand, the three-piece have quickly become one of the most significant acts on the lo-fi indie scene, with Led Zeppelin-style riffs mixed with melodic falsetto vocal arrangements that would even leave Prince spinning on his high heels. It all started back in the spring of 2010, when the Mint Chicks’ guitarist-vocalist Ruban Nielson unleashed the single ‘FFunny FFriends’ onto the blogosphere incognito. The song became an instant hit, forcing Nielson to move his DIY music project out of the bedroom and into the concert hall, releasing two of the finest guitar-flecked pop albums of recent years and a formidable live experience.

Before the headliners, local support act The White Album take to the stage. Named after everyone's fifth favourite Beatles album, the burly, bushy-faced trio charm the half-full crowd with their uniquely Nordic blend of harmonising, melancholic folk rock. Although their sound is undoubtedly soothing, it hardly lives up to their sonically ambitious namesake. While not tedious, the persistent wailing smacks of indulgence and syrupy sentimentalism.

With the excitable audience now doubled in size, Unknown Mortal Orchestra take to the stage and come dangerously close to disappointing with a haphazard rendition of ‘No Need for a Leader’. An anomaly for the usually brilliant sounding venue, the levels are way off, with the crunchy guitar licks drowning the delicate vocals and Jake Portrait’s peddling bass lines.

After a few nob twiddles, UMO are back kickin’ out the jams, with the unshakeable hooks of their debut album highlight ‘How Can You Luv Me’ sending all but the most painfully self aware crowd into a foot-stomping boogie. 

If UMO are earmarked for being vulnerable on record, the live setup really gives Nielson the space to get loose and even throw in a couple of cover songs along the way. One of those is a belting rendition of Syd Barret era Pink Floyd favourite ‘Lucifer Sam’. Similarly megalomaniacal and introverted as the psychedelic troubadour he pays homage to, Nielson’s free-spirited performance cements UMO as more than just a side project of a previously acclaimed Kiwi-popper, but as a fully realised tribute and continuation to a bygone, dare I say intelligent, form of rock music.

Just as the release of their second album saw a change from buzz-cut pop to moody guitar noodling, UMO have the look and sound of a band that are constantly evolving. Only just beginning to whet our sonic appetites, they’ll return in July to play Roskilde Festival. Who knows what they’ll be sounding like by then, but I’ll certainly be there to find out.

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