Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s music sounds as if it’s off an old cassette tape that sat warping in the sun on a dashboard before falling into a puddle. And it gets weirder the closer you listen to it. The songs are built on simple, peppy beats and topped with melodic vocals, but in between there’s a finger-picked guitar that sounds twisted out of shape. Come to think of it, those vocals sound pretty strange, too — they’re usually distorted and sung in a high, strained voice. (Look up live video of the band performing the single “Ffunny Ffriends” to see the unusual brass microphone the band uses to get that effect.)
“Thought Ballune” sounds like an acid-damaged Syd Barrett. “Jello and Juggernauts” comes across like a lunatic’s remix of a lite-rock/soul crossover hit from the ’70s, but with a guitar solo borrowed from Mozart. Then there’s “Nerve Damage!” which alternates a punkish verse and chorus with a heavily effected intro and outro that sound like a dog is chewing on the guitar amplifier.
Ruban Nielson’s guitar unifies all these disparate sounds. Unlike a lot of the lo-fi acts that Unknown Mortal Orchestra resembles, Nielson can really play. In New Zealand, he was a member of the Mint Chicks, a noisy, aggressive band that was signed to the esteemed Kiwi indie label Flying Nun. After moving to Portland, Oregon, and breaking up the Mint Chicks, he began developing the Unknown Mortal Orchestra sound while tinkering around in his basement. The Mint Chicks weren’t bad, but ironically it’s the new, American band that sounds like it belongs among Flying Nun’s indie rock heroes such as the Clean and the Chills.
Gauntlet Hair and Tropical Popsicle also perform.
UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA: Casbah, Sunday, November 6, 8:30 p.m. 619-232-4355. $10.