MGMT vinyl clouds. Photo by Hans Morgenstern

MGMT continue to drift down the rabbit hole with the brilliant, if at times mixed bag, that is its new self-titled album. If you can get past some rather heavy-handed early efforts in weirdness that open the album, you will find some amazing rewards in this further experimental album by Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden. The center of the duo’s fourth full-length album stands as the band’s most triumphant moment in its career. Songs like “Introspection,” “Astro-Mancy” and “I Love You Too, Death” might sound like filler to some but actually harbor some of MGMT’s most inspired moments of creativity ever.

Though rather sweet, get past the child’s voice that kicks off the album (“Alien Days”) and transitions into VanWyngarden’s hazy voice and some rather banal guitar strumming with some zippy, perky synthesized space-rock decora. You can even skip the second low-key, sleepy-voiced number, “Cool Song No. 2,” peppered with the sounds of the jungle, like the howls of monkeys. It’s easier to like “Mystery Disease,” with its dense layers of throbbing electronics, but despite some rather original thoroughly deconstructed samples that includes covers of “You Are My Lucky Star” and “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes” by Werner Müller and His Orchestra, the track never seems to go anywhere after four minutes. However, it’s when you arrive to track four where things really become interesting.

The cover of Faine Jade’s “Introspection” truly sets the album in motion toward post-psych-rock inventiveness. The phasing left-right-left-right-left of VanWyngarden singing the opening lines both brings a clichéd added dimension to the mix and an affectionate nod to the loopy stereophonic indulgence of the genre. MGMT vinyl detail. Photo by Hans MorgensternAs they did when they covered bands like Pink Floyd (“Lucifer Sam”) and Cleaners From Venus (“Only a Shadow”), MGMT stay true to the original tune but pump it up with a witty, almost cartoonish sense of psychedelic rock on steroids. But the track is also filled with shimmering bits of décor like phasing reverb and, God Bless them, a flute solo, not to mention Goldwasser’s complimentary bits of synthesized space rock sprinkles, as it builds to a soaring finale of all the bits layering up together to come to a sudden ecstatic cut.

The percussive “WHACK” of “Your Life Is a Lie” suddenly kicks in with hardly a chance for a breath. It’s a ruthless track on many levels. The lyrics offer an exploration of brutal honesty while the music feels like a non-stop assault. “Here’s the deal/Open your eyes/Your life is a lie/Don’t say a word/I’ll tell you why/You’re living a lie/Your life is a lie,” VanWyngarden sings with a deadpan delivery to conclude over and over that you are “on your own.” MGMT prove they still have a sense of looking at a deeper layer of existence, not too different from the sensibility that so richly informed the nostalgic moment of “Time To Pretend” (“I’ll miss the playgrounds and the animals and digging up worms … Yeah I’ll miss the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone,” he sang juxtaposing those lyrics with “I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars/You man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars”). But with “Your Life Is a Lie” something purer lies in the lyrics’ directness that skip subversion and get right to the point that speaks to today’s tendency for everyone to indulge in personas propagated by generation Y’s “We’re all so original together,” not to mention the social media filters provided by cyberspace and the whizz-bang edits of “reality television” that’s ironically and heavy-handedly contrived.

The song structure, with a metallic cowbell smack for punctuation, bobs on a perpetual, dense, unrelenting percussive racket with no real hook. With its sharp clacks of metal, rumbling bass and a range of instrumentation joining in to clang along to illuminate a humming buzz, the first single off the album was a slap in the face against all that is catchy about early MGMT. The video offers witty literal visuals, which is appropriate considering the words are far from subversive:

Side B, opens with a brilliant, ghostly shimmer that could have been lifted from a Broadcast record. A hypnotic electro pulse overtakes it, soaring off to space-rock heights until a burbling, creaking sound fades in to underlie the song’s pulsating electronics. With these three musical evolutions, “A Good Sadness” settles into a groove for VanWyngarden’s voice to appear. It’s mixed low, weaving through the din of electronics, breathy and layered and almost as inhuman and spectral as the multi-tracks. He becomes difficult to understand, but a few words like “memories” and “to feel it’s all right” appear among the sibilant vocals before the din swells and peters away in the distance on echoing beeps. It’s another impressionistic, layered— if more electronic— triumph that maybe the band’s most celestial moment.

“Astro-Mancy” kicks off sounding like “Abdulmajid,” an obscure David Bowie-Brian Eno collaboration from that duo’s time together in Berlin. You half-expect this busy track with its jungle-like rhythms and sporadic, active electro-whistles and phases to be an instrumental. Once again, VanWyngarden’s voice returns, with even more dreamier treatments.MGMT Side B. Photo by Hans Morgenstern It may as well be an instrumental, as he seems just as hard to understand as the previous track. But a glance in the lyric sheet reveals a surrealistic theme more interested in creating atmosphere than offering a concrete message. With coos and oos exhaling below his echoing vocals, VanWyngarden seems to sigh his lyrics: “My green silken river and two lights/I could almost touch the free walls.” It sounds like the aural equivalent of an LSD trip.

Just when you think the album could not go stranger, here comes the audio-hallucinatory build-up of melodies and synch shifts in “I Love You Too, Death.” Buzzy and pulsing electronics meld with flutes, ticking brushes and reverberated single dings on a tiny bell. Again VanWyngarden’s voice appears spectral and drenched in echo but much clearer, as he half whispers lines alluding to the grim reaper (“Who is much more than a friend/But never by my side?/All beginnings are an end”). As with many songs on this album, the lyrics grow more surreal as the song layers up with instrumentation (“Autumn hurts far less than sticks, knowing winter’s five feet tall”). Very gradually more melodies appear, first harmonium sighs then a strumming guitar. Still the track’s opening melody of flute and bell carries on, and the song ever so subtly morphs into something completely different while still maintaining a subtle familiarity. It’s the musical equivalent of deja-vu, and it’s brilliantly crafted.

It may be MGMT had little where else to go at this point, as the next track returns to the self-conscious zaniness that opened the album. “Plenty of Girls in the Sea” breaks up the strangeness like “Excuse Me” interrupted Peter Gabriel’s weirdo/dramatic first album. The cabaret-like tune feels out of place and too sly for its own sake. It’ll be new to some kids and may even sound weird for the sake of being weird, but it’s the obvious kind of bizarreness, despite the sometimes ironic lyrical play (“There’s plenty of girls in the sea/And plenty of those are not women”).

MGMT. Image Courtesy Columbia Records.

But then comes the capper, “An Orphan of Fortune,” which earns it’s spot as a closing number. It feels rather unfinished but still mysterious. It opens with a misty, creepy quality until shifting to a cascade of percussion and layers of creaking, warped electronics. At first listen, this could be a lost Bauhaus song. When the song explodes in an elastic, blurring “melody,” VanWyngarden’s voice emerges, again immersed in the mix to impressionistic quality. A few words jump out like “morning” and “erode” before the song once again shifts, breaking it down for a melodica solo. Then the wash of percussion returns with the vocals and more instruments piling in and freaking out, as VanWyngarden repeats “into Twilight” until everything halts for a shimmering phasing fade out, which gives way to a rather grotesque, roaring organ solo that kind of just peters out, almost exhausted in an anti-climactic fade out.

And so the short album ends on a rather low-key note that may sound like a shrug, if this band were not so sly. This is music for fans of the early Brian Eno and Pink Floyd. MGMT wrote a couple of great pop tunes early in its career that expanded their audience far wider than its heart for weirdness could handle. It’s great that “Kids” and “Electric Feel” where both witty and catchy, but so much of their stellar work is moody, atmospheric, dynamic and ultimately transporting. With this self-titled album, the duo has returned to work with Dave Fridmann, who made a name for himself by shaping the sound of the Flaming Lips and first worked with MGMT on its breakthrough 2008 album Oracular Spectacular, which featured those aforementioned singles. As much as the band showed growth working with Sonic Boom on its last album (My review: MGMT grow with Congratulations), their ease in working with Fridmann shines through on this new album. The genius hinted at in Oracular, like the shifting atmospheric “Future Reflections,“ reaches new organic heights in many songs of this new album.

Finally, the band has had visuals made for each track in an “optimizer” mode found on the CD or as a download in the vinyl version. As revealed by the trailer below, the “optimized” album features animated psychedelically-colored digital images from alien creatures to skyscapes that accompany the music on the album.

Music history is filled with artists who have tried to visualize music, from Walt Disney to Len Lye. Though there has been science that shows some correlation with color and music, this music critic prefers the evocative quality of music in relation to one’s own imagination. For instance, few probably feel the sensation of peering into a darkened corner of a desolated, run down, dusty mansion when they hear the opening drones and whistles of “A Good Sadness.”

MGMT vinyl. Photo by Hans Morgenstern

The “optimizer” trailer above implies the enhanced experience of watching visuals accompanied by the music. However, as ever, the vinyl is the true treat, offering pure aural bliss with nothing but the imagination to accompany the listening experience (again, note the research). Music is a blur of impressions, offering a feeling more than anything visual. There’s a taste of nostalgia and cracks into the subconscious dreamland that defy words. The creativity of this album works best as it was initially intended by the musicians: as music. The fact that the LP arrives on 180 gram vinyl, “pressed in Europe” (Columbia Records does have access to some of the best plants there), shines through on this record of rather intricate audio gymnastics. Because it’s so active and dynamic with so many layers of melody, contrast and din, it is best experienced on the separation and space provided by vinyl.

Hans Morgenstern

Columbia provided a promotional copy of the vinyl version of this album for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I don’t think I could have offered as much in-depth coverage on the up-coming MGMT album as well as “The Future Heart.” Read about the journey and hear five new songs in this brilliant blog post…

The Future Heart

Poor sales of [MGMT’s] last psychedelic release” – sophomore record Congratulations – resulted in their label pressuring them “to make a very different third album,The Daily Record falsely claimed in a September 2010 “Exclusive,” just five months after the LP was issued. “The band admit label bosses will not be giving them as much creative space,” the infamous Scotland tabloid claimed, attributing frontman Andrew VanWyngarden with saying Columbia would “be more involved and not give us as much freedom…We’ve been looking at relationships with the label during the recording process and it’s quite different this time.

A few days after “news” of Columbia’s alleged dissatisfaction with Congratulations circled the web, numerous sites spread another rumor: drummer…

View original post 2,233 more words

At the time of publication of this post, Starfucker have only about a week left in its nearly two-month-long US tour (purchase tickets through this link or scroll to the bottom of this post to see the remaining dates). In recent days, Starfucker has posted news of one sold out date after another (they are going on 19, at this point), plus details about a growing overseas tour and additions to giant music festivals on their popular Facebook page.

For a band with a name too naughty for radio and most commercial publications, this group with neo-psychedelic space rock leanings and a taste for dance music, has done all right for itself. Though the band still might be sitting in the shadows of a pair of groups they are often compared with: MGMT (read my lengthy review of MGMT’s last album) and Passion Pit, they seem to be signaling their own breakthrough without major TV appearances (pesky dirty name).

During the early part of their tour, while visiting Orlando, Florida, all five band members indulged in a little chat about their music and their experience so far. The gang from Portland, Oregon talked about specifics in their lyrics to their genre stylings to how this tour had so far treated them.

When I met them after a performance at the BackBooth (read my re-cap of that night’s show), much drama had already unfolded after one of the members’ arrest at SXSW, among other things, details of which I shall save for part 2 of this story. But, first thing is first, what musical stylings define Starfucker?

“We’re apparently following-in-the-footsteps-of-Passion-Pit-vein,” said Josh Hodges, the band’s songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist, with a laugh. “Even though we’ve been around longer than them.”

Hodges, wearing horn-rimmed glasses from out of the fifties, and the other four members of Starfucker stood around in an open-air alleyway that served as a cross section of back doors to several bars in Downtown Orlando, as music like Jay Sean’s “Down” blared out of a nearby club.

“Well, people have said it’s ‘future pop,’” said bassist Shawn Glassford, and they all laughed.

As for the MGMT reference,  Ryan Biornstad (guitar, keyboard, vocals, turntables) said, “We didn’t follow after MGMT cause we were around at the same time. They blew up before we did. We’ve never blown up; that’s the thing.”

The group, which also includes Keil Corcoran on drums and guitarist Ian Luxton, does show a sense of frustration with it all. Though they stare into the dark abyss of possibilities with a smile and a laugh, they remain weighted by a name that seems an obstacle to further success. During research on the band, I learned Hodges chose the name Starfucker to purify inclinations to create music chasing after notoriety with other projects that never came close to the popular fruition Starfucker has so far achieved. His motivations for creating Starfucker came from a pure place of art, as no one could market a band named Starfucker in the puritanical US, he had no pressure to create music aiming for popularity.

The problem was the music that resulted was so catchy it even made it to mainstream TV via commercials for products like Target and IBM. “It was totally luck,” Hodges said about his music’s appearance in some popular TV ads. “The ad agency that made the Target commercial is in Portland, and then, Badman [Records], the label who put out the first album, somehow organized the ‘Holly’ song being in the IBM commercial, so I had nothing to do with it.”

The songs featured were pulled from the band’s 2008 self-titled debut, recently reissued on vinyl (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on IBM used the mid-tempo and wistful track “Holly” while, according to Hodges, a friend working at the advertising agency hired by Target, suggested the bouncy “Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second” for its ad.

The exposure in television not only saw the band earning royalties from airplay that never needed to identify the band by name, it also upgraded its exposure, and Starfucker soon moved on to a larger indie label, leaving Badman for Polyvinyl Records. At the end of March, Polyvinyl pressed the band’s second album, Reptilians (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on, which the band is currently supporting with this tour.

With Reptilians, Starfucker has certainly shown it has grown since its first album and an intermediate 8-song mini-album in 2009, entitled Jupiter (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on “Our previous album was very electro poppy, kind of like light and fun,” noted Biornstad, “and the truth is, it’s like been a few years since our first album, and we’re at a point now where we’re getting older and touring a lot, and we’re staying true to what we feel is our sound, and it’s growing, and it’s evolving, and we’re not interested in making an album that’s just like the first one. We’re making it as an evolution.”

With the first album, Starfucker gazed up at the heavens and offered a grounded, but dreamy, view from below. But with this recent release, the band sounds like it has floated up to exist among the stars. Take the back-to-back moment of “Bury Us Alive” and “Mystery Cloud.” “Bury Us” 0pens with a twinkling electronic sample and zipping sounds that could have easily been lifted from a cheesy science fiction flick. On the chorus, Hodges sings in hushed, breathy tones as the song bursts with harmonizing electronics that buzz and screech only to melt away to the twinkles that opened the song. As the song fades away with the noises tightening around each other and drifting apart, the pace picks up with “Mystery Cloud.” With Hodges’ singing mixed even lower, decorated with echoing effects, he references desires to be a spaceman, as the drums pummel along and the synthesizers layer up from whining peels of noise to Moog-like burbles.

According to Polyvinyl’s bio on the band, Hodges wrote almost all of Reptilians by himself, just as he did the two earlier releases by Starfucker (save for the cover songs on Jupiter, of course). Whereas Hodges, Biornstad and Glassford all contributed drum work on the first album, Corcoran, who joined the band in 2008, took that primary duty in the studio for Jupiter and Reptilians. Luxton only recently joined the band as an extra guitarist for the band’s current tour, but has yet to record with the band, which is now focused on the touring and promotion cycle, which will soon see them on stages overseas in Europe, Canada and Mexico.

Polyvinyl made an exclusive variant of the album on clear vinyl limited to only 700, which sold out very soon after its release, at the end of March. The label is currently offering “Bury Us Alive” as a free download, to entice potential buyers. Polyvinyl already offered the band’s first single totally free for a limited time, the spacey “Julius,” reviewed in this blog last year, after it was released as a 7-inch single (The song is currently in the works of getting the music video treatment, according to Glassford).

Though I go into the single’s merits in depth in that aforementioned posting from October 2010 (the first and so far only 7-inch I felt inclined to review on this blog), here was my chance to settle a doubt I had about the lyric, as the new album features no lyrics on the jacket or inner sleeve. As a matter of fact, the LP record includes a poster of the album art formatted to look like a blank coloring book page, offering some insight into the band’s aesthetic sensibility inviting interpretations from fans. “It’s a mystery,” said Biornstad with a sly smile. “Mystery’s important.”

On “Julius,” Hodges’ voice is so affected by reverb, it makes it hard to tell if he sang, “Picture your body/Hearing your voice/Fall into your eyes” and not “Fall into your arms,” as it might have more rationally sounded to many fans. “That’s what a lot of people think it is. It’s ‘Fall into your eyes,'” said Hodges. “I actually wrote the lyrics to that song on our Facebook page because people kept getting it wrong.”

Hodges’ assurance that the lyric is indeed “Fall into your eyes,” is more than an artistic validation but also validates the philosophy that informs the album. In my review of the single, the lyric brought to mind the image of a lover conjured up by the mind’s eye that in turn sucks the dreamer back in, in an ever evolving loop. Sure, it makes for a surreal— and maybe unreal— image, but it also comes from a metaphysical place. It’s an interpretation that not only compliments the layers of noise and melody that wrestle with each other over the course of the song but also the album’s theme. Hodges offers his inspiration behind the track: “It’s about my grandfather waiting to die after my grandmother died,” he said. “He’s still around. There’s like all these old pictures of them at their wedding and stuff at their house. That’s the whole thing about looking at a picture.”

As an album obsessed with death, following Hodge’s grandmother’s passing, Reptilians is incredibly light for an album exploring such dark subject matter, but that maybe because Hodges has a clear handle of the roll death plays in life. Cementing the theme beyond Hodges’ sometimes obtuse and surreal lyrics, are the words of British philosopherAlan Watts. His lectures are excerpted at various moments within several songs. In the particular choices Hodges made for this album, Watts’ statements describe death as an integral part of life.  “Mystery Cloud” ends  as the song unwinds from a noisy clash of synths to a throbbing burble with Watts talking about that entwined cycle of life and death:

Everybody should do in their lifetime, sometime, two things. One is to consider death. To observe skulls and skeletons and to wonder what it will be like to go to sleep and never wake up— never. That is a most gloomy thing for contemplation. It’s like manure. Just as manure fertilizes the plants and so on, so the contemplation of death and the acceptance of death is very highly generative of creating life. You’ll get wonderful things out of that.

“We all just love him,” said Hodges about Watts. “For me just Eastern, and specifically Buddhist, philosophy is just very much influenced and changed my life, and Alan Watts is one of the most colorful and articulate speakers on the subject and one of the first people to bring it to the West, and in a cool way. He has such a playful way of talking about that stuff.”

Hodges said the band often listens to Watts’ lectures on the road and credits Bionstad for bringing Watts into his life. “It’s really inspiring,” Biornstad added. “Plus, I would say the way Eastern culture’s evolved in western culture is a lot of people have become extremely dogmatic about it, but I think Alan Watts is amazing because I think he was the forefather of bringing Eastern philosophy into the West, but he didn’t try to make it dogmatic … He got to the core of it, and he was like, you know what? You can apply this to any part of your life.”

Watts, who died in 1973, could almost be considered the band’s phantom member. His voice not only appears in several songs on Reptilians, he has appeared on all of Starfucker’s prior albums. The band’s debut album opens with “Florida,” a song Hodges insisted has nothing to do with the US state his band was visiting during this interview (“It doesn’t have anything to do with the state. It’s just a nice word”). Appropriate to the conversation about this seemingly randomly titled song is what Watts says at the end of the track:

This world is a great wiggle-effect. The clouds are wiggling. The waters are wiggling. The clouds are wiggling, bouncing. People— but people are always trying to straighten things out. You see, we live in a rectangular box, all the time; everything is straightened out. Wherever you look around in nature you find things often straightened out. They’re always trying to put things in boxes. Those boxes are classified. Words are made from some boxes. But the real world is wiggly. Now when you have a wiggle like a cloud, how much wiggle is a wiggle? Well, you have to draw the line somewhere, so people come to sorts of agreements about how much of a wiggle is a wiggle; that is to say a “thing.” One wiggle. Always reduce one wiggle to sub wiggles, or see it as a subordinate wiggle of a bigger wiggle, but there’s no fixed rule about it.

But do not confuse Starfucker as taking itself too seriously. The band does dress in drag upon occasion, after all. Also, Hodges’ lyrics do seem to start from very concrete sources of inspirations. When asked to explain “German Love,” to a part German, such as myself, he comes clean. “There was this girl that I was obsessed with, and that’s just how it goes,” Hodges said, at first.

“I’ll tell you the real story,” offered Biornstad, lighting up at the opportunity. “This is what really happened: Josh was super into this girl, and she was German. She was living in the United States, and he started dating her, and they were just hanging out for a couple of weeks, and he was really into her, and she was kind of not… She was into him at first, but then, with the touring and all that stuff, she kind of started getting some distance, so he got a little insecure, a little bit obsessed— sorry, no offense,” he added, looking over to Hodges.

“No, it’s OK,” Hodges accepted.

“But he got a little bit obsessed … She kinda didn’t want to be hanging out with him anymore, and so anyway, it was kind of like a Say Anything moment when he was going to her house late at night and playing songs for her, and he wrote ‘German Love,’ and he played it in the speakers for her and bringing her flowers and stuff, and she didn’t want anything to have to do with it, and he actually ended up with a restraining order against himself for this woman.”

Asked whether there was truth to this story, including the restraining order, Hodges admitted, “Yeah, actually I’m not supposed to be telling anybody about this, but we’re both kind of drunk, I guess,” Hodges added, excusing himself and Biornstad.

“Long story short, everything worked out fine,” Biornstad summed up.

“It’s fine, we’re friends kind of,” Hodges said of this German girl.

“She was a little bit sensitive to the whole thing,” added Biornstad. “What he was doing was actually kind of romantic, and she was just not getting it.”

“She was definitely not feeling it,” added Hodges, “but, you know what? There’s like so many different girls out there.”

Well, at least Hodges never went to jail over it. However, under very different circumstances, Biornstad did wind up behind bars, on this very tour. He and the arresting police department offer their stories in the second part of this artist profile. Update: Here is a third post on the pre-Starfucker, Sexton Blake years: Starfucker frontman recalls early years as Sexton Blake (an Indie Ethos exclusive)

In the meantime, here are the remaining dates on Starfucker’s current US tour:

04/19/11     Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court
04/19/11     Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge
04/20/11     Boise, ID @ Neurolux
04/22/11     Vancouver, Canada @ Biltmore Cabaret
04/23/11     Seattle, WA @ The Vera Project
04/26/11     Seattle, WA @ The Crocodile Cafe
04/28/11     Portland, OR @ Holocene
04/29/11     Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
04/30/11     Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios
Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Back in October of last year, MGMT recorded a session at Daytrotter. Their label sent me a press release about it a couple of days ago (it was officially posted on Jan. 3), but as usual, I get to it now, after its all over the ‘net. So for the fellow MGMT fans who keep up with this blog: Take a trip to the session via this linky.

It’s a great little 4-song set that you can download in the versatile format of mp3, or you can stream it with one click on Daytrotter’s website (downloading the mp3s calls for the installation of a program, FYI). The first three tracks are from their recent, genius album Congratulations. The tracks come across a bit raw, offering some insight into the value of the production of the album by Sonic Boom.

More interestingly, the fourth and final track is an apropo cover by lo-fi, new wave obscurities Cleaners From Venus. With this cover and after their tribute to Television Personalities’ Dan Treacy, not to mention their repeated cover of half of Magazine’s “Burst” on their last tour, MGMT continue to connect the dots to their roots in quirky, artsy pop rock.

Cleaners From Venus were among those many DIY acts of the British post-punk scene that popped up in the late 70s/early 80s. Often defined by a jangly guitar quality that pre-dated the “twee” label for bands like Belle and Sebastian. However, the band also had a surreal, loopy, almost psychedelic quality. No wonder the song sounds so good in the hands of MGMT.

The original song first appeared on 1982’s Midnight Cleaners. For more information on the album that first featured “Only a Shadow,” check out the thorough discogs entry on the cassette-only release of the source album. I’m sure MGMT have now given a boost to that album’s value on the secondary market.

I shall leave you with a YouTube stream of the original track backed by a second Cleaners From Venus song, “Krugerand Gladiators”:

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Summing up “Rocktober”

November 2, 2010

After a too long dry spell of visiting bands in South Florida, October was packed with out-of-town acts I wanted to see live. I even missed some, like Matt and Kim, Massive Attack and Thievery Corporation due to the overlap of shows. I even couldn’t drag myself out to see Caribou because I was too dang tired from the week before! It was a first for South Florida, as far as I was concerned. Hopefully we’ll have more of these kind of months.

I did a lot of comparing of the shows in my resulting live reviews, so let me sum up some of the standards, here.

Best performance

Hands down went to LCD Soundsystem. I have never seen such a large band of musicians gel so strong on stage, while keeping a groove with such consistency. One song after another infected the system. It was a transcendental experience of music. I was buzzing for days afterward on the natural high of their sounds, and I am dying to see them again. I had high expectations based on their albums and they surpassed them. Heck, they are among the best live bands I have seen in my life.

Best show

Anther band with high expectations going in: the Flaming Lips. I had only seen them live once before, a few years ago, but these guys were able to put on a show that demanded a follow-up. That called for a trip to Orlando, as previous plans would mean we would miss their geographically closer weekend show in Boca Raton. It was well worth the drive and hotel stay.

With their confetti canons and costumed friends dancing at the side of the stage, and lots of other surprises, the show was an unrelenting experience. Beyond that, singer Wayne Coyne showed a masterful connection with the audience. He was on stage even during the opening act, Le Butcherettes, just on the sidelines, cheering them on and waving at the audience. Throughout, he was in constant dialogue with the fans, be it an opening speech about the hazards of their bright lights or in the deeper moments of the music. There was no band with that much flash and that much connection this month or that I have probably ever experienced.

Most surprising opening act

I had never heard Beach House until they opened for Vampire Weekend. Of all the opening acts I caught this month, Beach House proved the most absorbing. Their glowing pyramids on stage proved them the showiest of the bunch. Even with the terrible sound that made Victoria Legrand’s lyrics mostly unintelligible, their dreamy sounds shown through. It was the only opening band who compelled me to buy a record after the show.

Biggest let down

Vampire Weekend directly followed Beach House but left me cold. I had been regretting missing their stop at the Fillmore during their support of their last album, but now I am over it. They went through the motions of connecting with the audience, but it was all a bunch of clichéd arena antics.

They certainly did their music justice, but the energy seemed canned. Out of all the shows, this is the one that most felt like a cabaret show.

Best effort transcending Fillmore’s stage

Most of these shows took place at Miami Beach’s Fillmore. None projected themselves beyond the stage better than Phoenix. They used screens and a light show meant for the theater and not just on stage, and singer Thomas Mars threw himself into the crowd more than once. He was the only singer I saw at the Fillmore this month do that, so props for him on that effort.

It was also the friendliest crowd (sure, Lips fans are friendly, but they are mostly high). They may have stormed the stage, but only after Mars started yanking people up and inviting them to do so. Otherwise, there was no moshing or even pushing throughout the set, and I was right up front. I was even able to have some nice conversations with the strangers around me about music. A roadie handed two of the teenage girls I was talking with after-show passes because, he said, they smiled at him.

Most challenging

Yes, the band with poppy hits like “Kids” and “Electric Feel” proved the most challenging. As a music fan born of an appreciation for Bowie and art rock, MGMT exceeded my expectations live at the Miami Beach Fillmore, as I heard stories of drug-fueled, slack performances in the past. For all I know those were false because these guys certainly did justice to their music, which is probably the most complex and challenging music of all of the bands I saw over the course of October.

I also read grumblings about the set list in a major magazine review, and the fact that the band did their hits early and lost steam from then on (I forgot which magazine this was, but I’ll save them the embarrassment). To me, one of the most inspired actions by the band was to diverge from their own set list, as described thanks to a photographer’s report here. The highlight was their 10-minute version of “The Handshake” mixed with Magazine’s coda for “Burst” followed by their 12-minute early-period Pink Floyd/Beach Boys prog-rock epic “Siberian Breaks.” I caught both on video (though “Siberian Breaks” was cut halfway through due to space limits on my SD chip):

During these two moments, I never saw so many walkouts of people who were clearly there to hear the hits and leave. Sure, they got to hear the seventies-inspired disco cut “Electric Feel,” but they would miss “Kids,” which capped this near half-hour prog-rock rock odyssey. I hope MGMT keep searching the prog in their blood.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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, 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.)