Presenting the umpteenth example of how the Internet has dramatically altered how we consume music. In 2010 Ruban Nielson, late of the recently disbanded noise-pop group the Mint Chicks, posted a fuzzy psyche-pop tune called “Ffunny Friends” to a Bandcamp page. Within days Nielson’s project, which he had named Unknown Mortal Orchestra, was being praised by high-profile music blogs as the next big mysterious thing. As Nielson explained in an interview with Under the Radar, what was funny about the anonymity that fueled Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s early hype – “who is this? sooo mysterious!” – was that it was unintentional. Nielson hadn’t yet filled out the “bio” part of his Bandcamp page.
Nielson’s story says a lot about how the craving for freshness, uniqueness, and anything unconventional plays an outsized role in how music finds its way to listeners these days – if Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Bandcamp bio had simply read “solo project from ex-Mint Chicks dude,” you could argue it wouldn’t have received the same amount of attention. But all that recedes when the album comes on. Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s self-titled debut sucks you in like a time warp, and the concoction of antique recording techniques, foggy vocals and acid-rock noodling won’t release its hooks until its thirty minutes are over.
After the earworm opener of “Ffunny Friends,” which filters a power-pop riff through a wash of distortion and Mark Ronson-esque soul percussion, Unknown Mortal Orchestra tacks to the downbeat minor-key groove of “Bicycle,” then the dashing disco of “Thought Balloon,” and the searing shuffle of “Jello and Juggernauts.” On reflection “Jello and Juggernauts” is the gem of the album – Nielson sounds like Lennon backed by a swamprock Plastic Ono Band, skating over a gorgeous melody and a guitar figure that treads the line between whimsical and profound – but this is the kind of album where nearly every song wants to convince you, and could, that it’s the gem.
Nielson’s two best assets are patience and a sense of space. Unlike other rompers in the psychedelic pop arena like MGMT, who hit the listener with hook after hook and leave no second ungarnished, Unknown Mortal Orchestra builds slowly to its peaks and is careful not to muddle the product. For example, the refrain of “Little Blu House” is so Lionel-Richie sweet that Nielson knows he needs little else to fill the song – just a thin layer of synths and a set of pocket percussion. “Strangers Are Strange” has the same addicting, understated swagger – mini riff, bubble bass, whispered vocals.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra has produced the rare indie pop record that seizes you on the first listen but also rewards repeated playing. The former is due to the power of Nielson’s hooks, and the latter to his virtuoso guitar work and intricate production. The veil in front of Nielson’s identity may have been removed, but plenty of mystery and excitement awaits anyone digging into his strange, rich music.