Unknown Mortal Orchestra | Pitchfork Music Festival | July 15, 2012
Photo: Kirstie Shanley
The air was thick with the scent of sunscreen and ganja. It was a perfect set-up to Portland trio Unknown Mortal Orchestra, whose faded, psychedelic dispatches first took shape as a jammy, jazzy intro, bounding with showy drum fills from which the group's coasting grooves ensued. Those head-bobbing, carefree rhythms are perfectly matched to a cross-country road trip; this is one of the few groups whose music works just as well in the daytime as night. The concept belongs to singer-guitarist Ruban Nielson, who's picked up quite a bit from the ’60s artists he so clearly worships. Things weren't so fragmented back then (I'm told), and UMO similarly refuses to pigeonhole itself to any particular psych subset. Bypassing the default stoner jams and ear-splitting freak-outs so common to the current acid-rock landscape, the band works instead at an easy-going pace, often dipping into a rubbery R&B bounce.
Nielson may be aiming to replicate the vintage sounds of last year's self-titled slab, but with just guitar-bass-drums there's only so much you can do live. Credit the band with showing off its respectable musicianship rather than relying on an array of effects to round out its sound. Nielson's not much for stage banter, but he's happy to na-na-na his way through the day. He's not that showy either, though his guitar chops were on vivid display as he cradled his guitar close like a newborn. Just don't expect Nielson to get on his knees—he'd rather make sure the fretting is right. Aside from the occasional dip or surge, this band prefers to work at a plateau, and at its best UMO's head-bobbing throb is comfortably absorbed by the generous audence, which seemed more than happy to soak it in.