In typically Shoreditch, and thereby standoffish fashion there’s a gaping abyss dislocating Southampton lo-fi pop practitioner Luke Donovan, aka Spectral Park, from the not insubstantial few huddled beneath a Cargo arch. Tonight sold out long ago, though there’s a rather more considerable gaggle elsewhere, as something of a London underground who’s who hoo-ha takes place at the bar next door. Steadily however, the flock drifts northwards from one cavern to another to coagulate in the dark, as Antipodean twangs abound.
Then, from the gloom stealthily emerges a silhouette – an effete being with a distant whiff of androgyny cloyingly bound to it. It’s Ruban Nielson, and Nielson to all extensive purposes is the suitably ambiguously, self-designated Unknown Mortal Orchestra who but a day previously released their sophomore record, II. Back to the now, and he’s garbed like a baffled nomad: Elizabethan tights cling to his spindly legs; a flaccid leotard hangs from his hips; a leather yarmulke sits atop the crown of his head. He bears semblance to a space cadet lost in time which, aptly, is reflected in the music bloating the hour or so we’re treated to.
That, or compatriot Connan Mockasin and opener Little Blu House instantaneously sloshes down the parallel. It’s thick, and fuggy, and sounds more underwatery than it does underground per se. Nielson’s vocal too, more often than not, sounds like it’s being processed through a time machine as opposed to an earthly microphone, and never is this more so than on the ramshackle trashcan pop smear that is Thought Ballune. Then there’s Bicycle: its lyrical refrain cyclical as a bike chain and its guitars racy as a stuttered chug up the gears, it’s the third in three to immediately sound unashamedly later ’60s. And, in a satiny Monkees bomber, this one of umpteen timeworn epochal influences is if not worn on Nielson’s sheeny sleeve, then across his shoulders.
Freely stepping on, How Can U Luv Me serves as a giddy cornerstone of the set, Ruban assuming a distinctly Jackson falsetto with his frantically waggling tongue firmly lodged in his left cheek. And even though he rarely alleviates the effect even when speaking – thus achieving a consistency of sorts – there’s a niggling disassociation of vocal from instrumentation which runs throughout. And it’s the latter which occupies that most lustrous of limelights as aside from a distinctly mucky Monki, Nielson’s slo-soul trucks on unperturbed musically. Conversely, his compositions can often be derailed lyrically as his words tumble down rabbit holes incompatible with our inner ears. Thus it’s the quicksilver licks off of which we hang like tiny earrings, and this isn’t altogether unexpected for Nielson is the sort of pedal whiz to have misspent an entire youth staring down groundwards. His fingers skid across his Jag-Stang with that same dexterity which gives the elderly decrepits among us a strangely natural aptitude for bridge, backgammon, and other activities of enduring ennui, and they serve to keep his lax voice in tow.
It’s all as effortless as his strumming and plucking techniques prove expressive though, whether on a frisky Jello and Juggernauts – a track which seemingly derives as much inspiration from Luigi Boccherini’s Minuet as it does from those more conventional lo-fi propensities – or a bouncy, smudged Strangers are Strange. Regardless, it’s all gently demented in that best possible sense – the consonant-favouring Ffunny Ffrends a succinct amalgam of gooey bass line and skiffly hip hop snares. Latest single So Good At Being In Trouble meanwhile, imbued with a newly thalassic quality thanks to the dense blue in which the stage is doused for these fleeting moments, finally cajoles Nielson’s voice out from its shell to shine as might that of Jamie Lidell circa Jim, or a certain Morrison. Whether that be Jim or James, I’m as yet unsure.
Though what is rather more clear is that whilst some may say that the best of performers possess an unerring ability to whisk the room away, Nielson instead plays as though it, and indeed we, were never there to begin with. He’s a child of the revolution and although Bolan only knows to which he belongs, his interactant aptness consequently leaves a little to be desired. Again, it’s to be expected – their bodies still at loggerheads with crippling “stomach aches and stuff” having played Japan just last weekend, there’s a sense that they’re not quite all there either. Though we don’t exactly abet, and there’s none of that same unhinged hysteria stereotypically expected of the years back to which the ‘Orchestra’s outpour harks. Yes, lyrics are momentarily lost in the ether of unintelligibility, his monitoring of the sporadically groggy sound system is apathetic at best (“It wasn’t too turgid for you, was it?” he at one point quips lethargically), and his insults are as retrograde as some of his less impressive oeuvres (“Hey! Get out, short hair!” being a particularly choice jibe). Though even for EC2, our reaction is woefully muted.
A sense of release then only comes in the form of a gloriously unrestrained encore, which most pertinently comprises a spiritual panegyric of sorts to Syd Barrett – a kind of when in Southern England approach which brings us to a searing rendition of Lucifer Sam which is more reminiscent of Neal Hefti’s clumsy Batman Theme than it is of much of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. And irrespective of its lyrics of being “always by your side”, it’s just a minor shame that we were for the most part brought together out of sellout proximity, as opposed to any discernible passion for the music, man.