Ruban Nielson was originally the guitarist for the Mint Chicks in New Zealand,
formed with his brother Kody, the singer.
They released the EPs Octagon Octagon Octagon (2003) and Anti-Tiger (2004), and the albums Fuck the Golden Youth (2005) and Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No! (2006), containing their most famous single,
Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No!, before moving to Oregon, where they recorded
the EPs Mintunes (2008) and Bad Buzz (2010).
The album Screens (2009) had beend recorded over the previous years.
Kody Nielson started Opossom with bassist Michael Logie and Bic Runga while
Ruban Nielson started the Unknown Mortal Orchestra with producer Jacob Portrait.
The 30-minute album Unknown Mortal Orchestra (Possum, 2011) is a
hodge-podge of mediocre imitations: the
childish psych-pop of FFunny FFrends,
the Lionel Richie-ian pop-soul ballad Little Blu House,
the mild-mannered punk-rock of Nerve Damage!,
and so on. Nielson is clearly aiming for grand melodies but all he comes up
with is a nursery rhyme from the age of the Hollies (Thought Ballune),
and the sprightly syncopated How Can You Luv Me, which sounds like a Tamla hit played at double speed.
The slow, poppy, John Lennon-ian ditty Jello And Juggernauts shows that he's a much better guitarist than singer.
In fact, the highlight of the album could be the
intricate guitarwork in what would normally be a pastoral folk-rock ditty, Boy Witch.
A better focused work, II (Jagjaguwar, 2013) delivered professional
Sly Stone-ian soul-rock (From the Sun,
So Good At Being In Trouble)
of Simon & Garfunkel's tender folk-rock
(Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark)), of
Kinks-ian pop (The Opposite Of Afternoon), etc.
Again, the real highlights were the guitar accompaniment and solos, from the
riff of No Need For A Leader, borrowed from the Grand Funk Railroad's American Woman, to
the Jimi Hendrix-ian psych-rock of Faded In The Morning, peaking with the
thin shrill guitar sound in the quiet prog-rock narrative of the seven-minute Monki.
If Multi-Love (Jagjaguwar, 2015) was meant to mark a
poppy turn, then Multi-love and Stage Or Screen accomplish the
mission. Most of the other songs are nostalgic tributes to the past:
Ur Life One Night is a lame imitation of Prince;
Can't Keep Checking My Phone sounds like Janet Jackson with the marimbas of Simon & Garfunkel's Cecilia;
the refrain of the funk-pop ballad Necessary Evil is a close relative of
Ruban Nielson doesn't seem to realize it, but his work is mainly notable for
his guitar playing:
the seven-minute Puzzles is propelled by distorted/detuned guitar licks and ends with a dreamy acoustic solo;
Extreme Wealth And Casual Cruelty is synth-orchestral prog-rock with a sax solo that would make Steely Dan fans cry, but boasts a highly original guitar coda.
Sex & Food (2018), recorded in Iceland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam, begins with a
psychedelic romp, Ministry of Alienation, that is not representative
at all of the rest. The rest consists mostly of
slow pop-soul ballads such as Hunnybee, The Internet of Love and the most
dejected of all, If You're Going to Break Yourself.
Alas, it is Nielson's falsetto, not his guitar effects, that dominates the songs.
For a few minutes American Guilt resurrects the thundering stoner-rock
of Blue Cheer-esque, and that's the best
that the album has to offer.
The instrumental album IC-01 Hanoi (2018) contains seven untitled improvisations. Most of them compose a sort of tribute to jazz-rock of the 1970s,
are chamber jazz emphasizing Minh Nguyen's Vietnamese instruments (a flute, a jaw harp and assorted percussion),
and the ten-minute Hanoi 6 is an ambient-jazz meditation highlighted by
Chris Nielson's reeds and Nguyen's jaw harp.