All words: Alan Pyke
Sometimes the contrast between two bands sharing a stage warps the experience of each. So it was with the Terrible Bandnames Tour (unofficial title) at Rock & Roll Hotel last night.
For all their buzz, Foxygen sounded like a high school talent show: capable players with no sense of what they’re doing, beyond imitating snatches of what they liked about older, better bands. And for all their cultivated anonymity, Unknown Mortal Orchestra sounded like they’d always been there, successfully tapping into the simple rubblegut rhythmic pulse that’s animated rock since our parents were kids.
First, Foxygen. (Well, second in the billing, but I missed Terrible Bandnames Tour leadoff Wampire.) These guys-and-gal have been enjoying a miniwave of blog noise about their abilities for a few months. How does the live show hold up to the expectation-setting? Poorly. Very, very poorly. A few songs into their set, there was a Grand Canyon-sized gulf evident between the composure and retro grace of their singles and the sloppy identity-less conflict of their stage show.
Foxygen do this unfortunate pastiche of garage mess, wispy 60s guitar pop, and look-how-cute-we-are aimlessness. For all that, they’re talented musicians, and if they ever get on the same page and find a coherent musical identity, they may prove formidable. Still, you’ve probably seen this band before in your school auditorium. If you had friends who formed a band even though the lead singer wanted to be Ozzie Osbourne and the lead guitar wanted to cover The Byrds and the lady playing synth just wanted to blend some Wolf Parade into things, you’ve definitely had the Foxygen experience. It was probably cheaper, and less disappointing since the internet didn’t tell you to be excited about it.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra are a different beast entirely, not only simpler but far more together. With three dudes – about half the compliment Foxygen find necessary – UMO produce a wall of downtrodden psych-pop sound. They’ve found a midpoint between shoegaze and must-be-on-acid-to-enjoy thump. On Wednesday night, with the crowd a bit thinned out, they banged away at a collective tender spot, romping through “Little Blue House” and “How Can U Love Me” and “Faded In The Morning” with gusto. The problem is that all this stuff rapidly sounds the same. Foxygen were boring because they didn’t make sense or construct anything coherent. UMO are coherent as hell, but they seem to only have two gears: noisy and bouncy. Still, knowing what you’re after covers a multitude of sins. If you haven’t heard UMO, imagine Wye Oak with more bang and haze, with less beauty but more power.
They saved their grandest, most alluring stuff for late in the set. “Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark Does)” provided a mellow, jangly come-down from the preceding tidal wave. “Ffunny Ffriends” is about as twee as the spelling suggests, but it’s also a great tune and might’ve been a stronger set closer than the self-indulgent “Boy Witch.” But even when they get noodly and boring, UMO are a much tighter band than their buzzy set-up act. Perhaps they’ve already peaked, and Foxygen are on the precipice of figuring it all out and doing something brilliant. Right now, though, it’s a hell of a lot more fun to watch three guys achieve a simple goal than to watch an aimless flock haphazardly search for a goal of their own.