October 28, 2010
MGMT are at a crossroads, and their problem came wholly to life during a live show at Miami Beach’s Fillmore theater the other night. The alternative pop/psych-rock outfit straddles a daring line by dabbling in progressive rock while also being responsible for constructing some all-too perfect disco-pop songs, which has hurtled them to the top of the charts. The execution of both forms and the reactions to both were on vivid display last night at the Fillmore.
First some context: When their second album, Congratulations, debuted earlier this year, it nearly unseated Justin Bieber’s album on the top of the Billboard charts, reaching number two but falling off steadily after. When the article appeared on Entertainment Weekly’s Music Mix blog, some fans of both Bieber and MGMT admitted to owning both albums.
What an unpleasant irony. MGMT have striven all along to be an art-rock group, and they have proven their knack for amazing music by constructing both groovy retro funk ditties like “Electric Feel” while also pulling off moody spacey-psych experiments like “Future Reflections,” both from their debut album Oracular Spectacular, which shot them to indie and even pop stardom.
In an article on Billboard.com, just ahead of the release of Congratulations, MGMT’s founding members, Andrew Vanwyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, expressed their apprehension of success and the pressures that come with the expectations for a band as successful as MGMT. What at first began as an ironic joke– mixing progressive music with a sure-handed approach to pop– has become a burden, and that drama visibly unfolded on Fillmore’s stage last night.
The all-ages show certainly attracted the rambunctious teenie boppers, as evidenced by the screams that greet and end each song I captured on video below. We tried to make it to the front with the aid of our fastlane tickets, but were overtaken by running kids who crushed us into the barricade. Despite ending up right up front, we gave up our spot to two small girls behind us and headed for the balcony to take in the show leaning back in chairs and calmly drinking beers.
The balcony provided a good view to take in the walkouts after “Electric Feel,” which segued into the two lengthiest songs of the night, an extended jam version of “the Handshake” followed by the epic “Siberian Breaks” from the new album.
One should not take these walkouts as a cynical commentary to the extended, artier songs of MGMT’s repertoire, but a reflection of the fair weather fans MGMT’s hits have attracted in its following, which do include some of the ignorant teen hipsters that saturated the place. Let’s face it, these teens are mostly clueless as to the groundwork that has informed MGMT’s music. I doubt most understand how fully Brian Eno’s early 70s albums, beyond the name of one of MGMT’s songs on Congratulations, has informed their aesthetic. But kudos to anyone who understands the reference to Oblique Strategies and what it has done to create great albums by David Bowie and Talking Heads, among others.
As “the Handshake” and “Siberian Breaks” provided the soundtrack to the emptying crowd, which included some neighbors next to me in the balcony, you can also hear some disinterested chattering during the quieter bits of these songs. Most people were not into it or did not get it. I for one, loved to hear them stretch “the Handshake,” which is under four minutes on Oracular Spectacular, to such epic length.
Listening to it all the way through, it might just be segueing into another song, but as far as I can tell, this added section only contains two lines “Keep your silence to yourself/You won’t forget yourself.”* Maybe this is the beginning of a new song, but in this context it totally worked like the epic coda of “Future Reflections.” If it is a new song, it’s a nice, long and spacey addition to MGMT’s repertoire, and also featured some great, over-the-top guitar soloing by James Richardson.
As for “Siberian Breaks,” I was only able to capture the first half before my memory card filled up. Still, it is a certain someone’s favorite part of the song, so here it is:
What you do not see in the video above is, toward the end of the 12-minute opus, when the song breaks down into dreamy burbles of noise, bassist Matt Asti walks away, and the band carries on. Then it’s off with “Kids,” which is all backing tracks! Vanwyngarden and Goldwasser take to the stage, mikes in hand, to dance around like a couple of b-boys and sing along, leaving drummer Will Berman and Richardson to mime along by tapping the sides of the drum kit, clearly a bit bored, though still smiling about the silliness of it all. Who knows? Maybe Ben and Andrew were even lip-synching to the song, and the only thing real was the crowd’s screaming during the break down of the song. The audience ate it all up, despite the fact that the band was trying to parody itself. A photographer did post a video of that night’s performance of “Kids” from down in the crowd, which you can see here.
It’s ironic that on their debut EP as MGMT, “Time to Pretend,” the duo threw in a snippet of “Only Time Will Tell” by eighties prog-poppers Asia in an early version of “Kids,” which closes off the EP. It’s an ironic reference to what was then a pop supergroup composed of luminaries from such previous prog-rock outfits like King Crimson and Yes . It might have been a send up then but now it might portend MGMT’s very own fate, unless they do something serious, like maybe just dropping the hits from the set-list and playing smaller venues? Radiohead refused to do “Creep” when it became a hit, and look how they turned out.
Another psych-rock band burdened by zeitgeist-defining hits is the Flaming Lips, but they never refuse their fans “She Don’t Use Jelly” or “Do You Realize.” But at least they pay respect to the songs while turning their sets into giant parties, even if they noodle on and on with crazy prog-rock bits (the parts I prefer). In my post about their recent live show in Orlando, the Flaming Lips certainly indulged in several songs from their new prog-heavy Embryonic. But, like those great early Genesis days with Peter Gabriel at the helm, they know how to turn the songs into spectacles.
Plus, when you see Wayne Coyne and his crew perform, you cannot help but feel the love he has for his fans, which transcends to life and humanity. Many tears flow from the fans when he sings “Do you realize you have the most beautiful face,” while also singing “Do You Realize that everyone you know someday will die,” and it’s not from fan-girl zeal but from a deeper reverent place in the soul.
Vanwyngarden definitely showed an effort to connect with the audience at Miami Beach’s Fillmore, but even when he I said, “I love you guys” to the crowd he had to tag on “I really mean that,” when he had his back turned to the audience. Despite this strained attempt at sincerity, what mattered is that these guys rocked the stage with true passion for their music. Having seen some MGMT performances prior, even on TV, when they just can’t seem tot get into it, I had reservations going in. But, that night, they had energy, and it showed, despite the crowd reaction and interaction. Still, there was something heavy hanging over the show.
In a lengthy review I wrote for Congratulations, I praised the band for their indulgence in the progressive side of their music. Though some have derided this second album from MGMT for not producing anything as catchy as “Electric Feel” or “Kids,” I think it is not for a lack of musical skill on the part of MGMT. I truly hope they continue to break away and continue listening to bands like Krautrock legends Cluster, as one of the band members admitted to in an NPR interview around Congratulations‘ release. Screw them walk outs, and keep rocking, MGMT.
*Edit: According to an MGMT fan on the MGMT Fan Forum this is a cover of Magazine’s “Burst,” which they have done live on other occasions. Looking it up, I found a live version by Magazine from 1978, and actually MGMT take the coda of that song, and tag on to “The Handshake” to great affect.
(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
April 23, 2010
Like I said in an earlier posting, when MGMT released the preview track “Flash Delirium” for their sophomore effort Congratulations, I had feared they had bitten off more than they could chew. With the release of that one song, the band told the music media it was diving into psychedelic surf rock and warned fans they were turning a new corner away from the baroque alt-rock disco stylings of Oracular Spectacular, the debut album that brought them mass acclaim and popularity.
What at first seemed to have had the potential to become a divisive work that would prove the devotion of MGMT’s fans, has debuted in the number two spot on Billboard’s album chart.
Critics have also embraced the album, and as they stumble over themselves to figure out how Congratulations fits into MGMT’s already colorful two-album canon, I am going to say that the band has not strayed too far from their signature sound to write this up as a re-invention. The popularity on the charts and even among critics proves this. I would not go as far as to say the album shows stagnation in the band’s sound. As a matter of fact, I think it indeed bodes well for the creative growth for MGMT.
When I first heard Congratulations, I wondered where had the hooks of Oracular gone? But then I learned Congratulations rewards repeated listens, and there are indeed some heart-stopping moments of musical loop d’ loops that rival some moments from the first album.
One of the genius instances comes early in the album with “Song for Dan Treacy,” during the refrains of “He made his mind up,” which take up the last half of the song. Each refrain comes back with more layers of vocals and longer echo effects, by the end riding shimmering washes of electronics. It provides a luscious contrast to the dinky but driving high-pitched honking synths that open the song.
A similar effect occurs within “Someone’s Missing.” The song opens hushed and reflective with a soft beat and sporadic little strums of electric guitars and humming organs. Then come little distant sparkles that grow after a reverberating guitar strike that covers the song as Andrew VanWyngarden sings the mantra “It feels like someone’s missing” among glittering effects until the song simply fades out. The moment recalls the luscious but too brief refrain that closes “Weekend Wars” from Oracular: “I’m a curse and I’m a sound/When I open up my mouth/There’s a reason I don’t win/I don’t know how to begin.”
These early examples of extreme and layered dynamics are testament to the growth of MGMT. You might recall that MGMT made an auspicious if not ho-hum debut with their “Time to Pretend” EP in 2007, but when a couple of the tracks (the title track and “Kids”) re-emerged on their debut full-length with more up-beat pacing and more effects, the songs caught fire in the clubs and on alternative radio. Dare I say, “Song for Dan Treacy” and “Someone’s Missing” are now the superior pop songs in MGMT’s repertoire because of their more masterful yet still playful use of vibrant effects and repetition.
MGMT go into more complex territory as the album spins on. “Flash Delirium” marks the album’s craziest experiences in dynamics. According to the band on a recent appearance on NPR’s “All Songs Considered,” The BBC decided to, in my opinion, ruin the song by removing the flute solo that provides the amazing bridge to quite possibly the loudest, most chaotic moment on the album. “Flash Delirium” ends up as a daring, if not ingenious experiment in musical juxtaposition. It already proved a brilliant, if confounding introduction to the new album when the band released it as a free MP3 a couple of months prior to the album’s official release. I put it aside after one listen and lowered my expectations, until I heard the album in its entirety, about a month later.
Going back to the strengths of Congratulations, the album continues with the 12-minute track “Siberian Breaks,” which actually echoes such musical references as the Beatles, Beach Boys, Pink Floyd and good old space rock. The song does develop as much as it takes left turns into new rhythms and melodies, something the Beatles popularized a long time ago. There is a moment early in the track where the vocals sound like a mellow Syd Barret, as the song shifts into 3-4 time while (what sounds like) a swinging harpsichord carries the melody (it may be the electric sitar mentioned in the credits). Then a large thud opens the way for a dreamier portion that recalls the mellow bombast of the Beach Boys.
Before anyone takes these comparisons of MGMT to legends like Pink Floyd and the Beatles too seriously, let me say that while the Floyd and Beatles do inform this music, Congratulations is not the revolutionary work of say Sgt. Pepper’s or Dark Side of the Moon. What is true about Congratulations is that it offers just one more in a long line of expertly crafted children to these early, revolutionary rock albums, which had already opened the door to the more exaggerated sounds of prog rock and Kraut rock not too soon afterward and continued to evolve through the work of bands like Spacemen 3 (founding member Sonic Boom fittingly produced Congratulations) in the 80s and into the world of noise pop pioneered by such varied groups as Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips. Indeed, bands have been doing this kind of music for decades already, to only slightly different effect. It appeals to a certain aesthetic of rock aficionado who likes dynamics in their music and creative juxtapositions in melodies and even the musicality of noise. Congratulations certainly delivers on that.
Going back to “Siberian Breaks,” after about four or five major shifts in tones, rhythms and melodies the song melts into a chilly swirl of interstellar waves of synthesizers, not all too different from the Steve Miller Band’s “Space into” that opens his legendary Fly Like and Eagle album from 1976. As the sounds of space rock fades away, the album has a tough act to follow, and actually proceeds with a trio of the simplest songs on the album.
The punk-rock corniness of “Brian Eno” follows. It proves a fun listen for fans of Eno with references to oblique strategies and even a pronouncement of Eno’s entire name. It also proves a fitting, if too obvious tribute, as there is a very close connection between the music of Brian Eno and MGMT, beyond this loopy song. Anyone familiar with Eno’s early 70s avant-pop forays Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) will hear similarities in music stylings. Eno’s early surreal lyrics filled with smart-ass delivery certainly pre-dates MGMT’s ironic style, and dare I say, some of Eno’s musical constructs blow away the simple, albeit effective, song structures of MGMT. As MGMT sing on “Brian Eno”: “We’re always one step behind him, he’s Brian Eno.” The band truly show they know their Eno, even if they cannot create something as insane, colorful and still catchy as “Mother Whale Eyeless.”
Up next is the album’s sole instrumental. Despite its deceptive title, “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” has no direct reference to Lady Gaga or the early 20th century art movement made famous by Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. With its melancholy piano and distant howls and screams, the track actually sounds more like the backing track to the Smiths’ “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me.” The plodding melody and cheap sonic electronic effects also sound like something off the soundtrack from a 70s horror movie… maybe in a scene that shows the heroine reaching heaven after suffering a grisly death.
There are more songs. The driving opener “It’s Working”is probably the most definitive surf song on the record. The mellow, dreamy “I Found a Whistle” captures the essence of hippie psychedelics. Finally, the title-track closer, is another mellow tune that is probably the most straight-up song on the album, driven by bass, guitar, drums and vocals and the occasional noodling keyboard for mere decorative effect.
After hearing some warnings about the quality of Oracular Spectacular on vinyl, I was pleasantly surprised with the amazing sonics of the 2-disc, 180 gram version of Congratulations. Clearly, Columbia made sure not to make any missteps in sound on this album. As loud and chaotic as this record gets, there is an amazing separation of the instrumentation. Things do not blur and distort as easy as they can when blasting the CD. The vinyl version, therefore, does special justice to the shifts in tones within these complex songs, making the vinyl format the one to truly appreciate this album in its fullest.
I picked up the CD first, and then took a chance on the vinyl. It revealed more layers of complexity, as well as highlighted the dynamics of the album. Upon first hearing the vinyl, one could hear that the electronic effects that build up in “Song for Dean Treacy” actually start at the beginning of the first “He made his mind up” in “Dean Treacy,” and there’s a small piano run just before the last refrain that I never heard on the CD.
Vinyl always shines when capturing the complex dynamic range of organic drumbeats. The thud that starts the first shift in tone in “Siberian Breaks” reverberates with so much color compared with the dull thump I heard on the CD. In fact, all the noises that herald a shift in style throughout the song resonate so much better on the vinyl version. No wonder the band released this track as a 12-inch single on Record Store Day. Of all the songs on this album, this is the most delightful to experience on vinyl.
Finally, as far as the packaging of the LP set, it was a shame the label scrimped to avoid a gatefold album, where we at least could have had the band picture that comes in the middle of the CD, but more important, it could have provided a stronger home for the heavy vinyl that just barely fits into the single jacket it actually comes with. The vinyl also has a download code for the album, so you can listen to it on your portable audio devices or burn a CD of it. A truly original aspect of the vinyl version is that it also comes with a scratch off cover art that actually reveals the photo collage on the reverse side of the lyric sheet enclosed on the CD version. I’ll leave you with that image…
March 22, 2010
It seems MGMT have had their new album Congratulations leaked. In response to that, they are offering fans to stream the album in its entirety on their website (press the play icons next to the song titles to start the streaming).
At first, the only thing all of us MGMT fans got as a preview was the psycho wail and noise of “Flash Delirium,” which the label gave to the various music mediums to push as a free download. When I heard it, I thought, “These guys have lost their minds.” I pushed it aside after only one listen, and I can appreciate the odd left turns of progressive rock and general noise as much as any fan of avant-garde music, but truly, I felt this song came across as self-consciously odd in a bad Beach Boys kind of way… upon first listen. It has since grown on me (recalling my initial hate-love relationship with Of Montreal’s songcraft).
Now, halfway through the new album, I can say some of the tracks on Congratulations are even easier to digest than “Flash Delirium.” It’s quite worth any fan of Oracular Spectacular to check out. So far it has a wonderful psychedelic feel, a sort of mellower, easier-on-the-ears Syd Barret.
I still have to complete my first listen, but already, five songs in, I can see why fans on the MGMT message boards are already saying they have begun pre-ordering it (the band is offering a free lithograph to those that pre-order it via their website, to boot). Hopefully the label will do a better job with the vinyl version as their last album got bad reviews for the vinyl’s sound quality (it’s not about putting digital tracks on vinyl at loud, distorted levels).