Unknown Mortal Orchestra Is the Most Interesting Band in the World

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Unknown Mortal Orchestra is by no means the greatest band touring today. Its music isn’t the most accessible; at times it’s even trying. The group was originally Ruban Nielson’s basement project, not intended for the masses, and two albums and tours later, the act's stage presence could use a bit of work — Nielson spent most of the show staring at his shoes, occasionally muttering a "thank you." But UMO exists entirely in its own universe. Comparing it to any other band is a futile task, and Friday night at the Bluebird Theater, UMO made it clear that anything happening outside the theater's doors didn't matter. What was happening on stage was the most interesting event, period.

The band is pure innovation and energy. UMO is funky, jazzy, poppy, experimental. Some songs are five minutes with catchy choruses, like the closer, “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone,” which had the entire venue dancing and singing along. Others barely hit the two-minute mark: “Like Acid Rain,” which UMO opened with, is just a short series of "la la la"s over a robotic synth beat. The breakout hit “FFunny FFriends” is basically the same chorus repeated over and over for four minutes. You just never know what's going to be played next. Nielson’s first album was composed entirely by him as just a hobby. It's minimal and strange. The latest album, Multi-Love, is a deeply personal album based on Nielson’s intense polyamorous relationship with his wife and another woman; there’s a bit of chaos and mystery surrounding it all.

During the live show, there was no logic to the setlist — "FFunny FFriends" was right in the middle — and hearing it live instead of just the recorded parts creates an entirely new translation of the music. There were moments when a song turned into some kind of jam-band improv, with Nielson kneeling on stage and twisting various knobs on his pedal board while playing extensive guitar solos; at other times, the band appeared to be reading each other like the four men had played in jazz bands before, playing off each other in long-winded interludes.  For all intents and purposes, it was a different UMO than you would hear on Spotify — and arguably a better one.

As the show proved, UMO really could be the most interesting band around right now. Nielson creates the kind of music that works perfectly in your headphones as well as in a crowded theater, as you dance with strangers all shouting, “Multi-love got me on my knees!” Every UMO album has brought with it a new combination of sounds and melody that no other musician is even considering right now, and Nielson and his current band’s ability to take a brilliant album like Multi-Love and create an entirely new, live instrumentation version is just a testament to that ambition.

Next time UMO comes to town, Nielson will probably have a completely different show with a whole new set list and a new twist to the act's unique sound — and we can’t wait.

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