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…