Review: MGMT’s “Congratulations”

Apr 13, 2010 5:14pm

Two years ago when MGMT made the scene with their first album, “Oracular Spectacular,” they were seen as an adventurous oddity.  “Oracular Spectacular” was not a great album, but its two greatest tracks (“Time to Pretend” and “Kids”) showed promise that this Brooklyn-based goofball duo might have been on to something.  As the album gained a following and buzz around them grew, they released their demo to quench their audience’s thirst before their much anticipated second album.  “Congratulations” is that second album.  It’s an awkward record that tries too hard to be “groundbreaking” and “deep.”  Instead it comes off as being pretentious and overblown.  Group members, Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden are looking for psychedelic gold.  Their benchmark of inspiration lies somewhere between the Flaming Lips and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. But the result is too often too overcooked for its own good.  Plus, their wispy, high voices can be taxing to listen to for long stretches. The album starts off well, with “It’s Working,” a track which tones down many of the group’s negative tendencies.  If they kept this level of craftsmanship throughout, they’d have a better record.  Tempo shifts and vocal harmonies expand their palate, with a sound that doesn’t sound dissimilar from a lesser imitation of the Beatles later work.   “Song For Dan Treacy” works also, sounding like a psychedelic answer to the Libertines, with interesting use of farfisa.  But you can sense it all beginning to unravel as the song falls off beat for a second and makes a sonically spastic shift. It’s not bad, but, this is really nothing new.  Dozens of garage bands were doing this in the sixties.  MGMT are trying too hard to be a modern answer to a retro sound.  “Someone’s Missing” is a creepy falsetto throw-away, which would have benefitted from a better vocalist.  (Please!  Someone help Tiny Tim escape from the echo chamber!!)  It’s just an eerie, unpleasant listen.  There’s a good song in here, perhaps, but this is not that great a performance.  Even when the song picks up and gets some real energy, it’s marred by some so-so disco funk guitar. It’s as if Goldwasser and VanWyngarden were listening to Beck’s song “Debra” and something by A Band of Bees and decided to combine them.  Sadly they don’t have the level of skill to pull such off such a gutsy maneuver.  “Flash Delirium” is the album’s main single.  They probably want this to be T-Rex meets “Sgt. Pepper,” but this really ends up sounding like the kind of song that made the Beach Boys separate themselves from Charles Manson.  The flute solo sounds like a poor lift from Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country.”  In all, “Flash Delirium” just seems weird for the sake of being weird.  There’s little to offer up here that is (a) New  or (b) Interesting.  Yes, the track is jam-packed with instrumentation and it is somewhat complex, but it loses its cohesion under the mess of tempo shifts and echo effects.  It screams, “Look at us!  Look how freaky we are!”  It’s too self conscious.  When the Mamas & the Papas-by-way-of-the Partridge Family background vocals come in, the track reaches its most unpleasant boiling point.  It then devolves into a hardcore screamfest.
“I Found A Whistle” aims to be wistful with its watery synths.  But it sounds like woozy, druggy nonsense.  “I found a whistle that hangs like a charm. / And when my noose is tied I can blow it, / And fall into your arms. / 15 centuries of dissolution and grief / To return a yellow trickster and a thief.”  Lyrically, this album is a garbled mess.  Nothing here is a quotable as the “live fast and die young” tale told in “Time To Pretend.”  It’s all deluded, poor quality beat poetry.  If you think the lyrics are aimless, on the twelve minute, “Siberian Breaks,” the music is equally unfocussed.  There was a time when bands would routinely take up more than half a side of vinyl with an experimental track.  Once again, MGMT fall short.  Bland strumminess turns into a psychedelic sing-a-long.  Chords and tempos lift, into a nearly spoken bit which mentions a “silver jet plane,” backed by a harpsichord pattern.  Next for  few minutes we get some flanger-assisted keyboards with tremolo-affected vocals.  It all sounds so dewy and syrupy, as if they are about to give us a history of the children of the elements.  It sounds like hippie, stoner dribble.  There was once good music like this.  Most of it was recorded before 1970.  Once that section of the track is over, it goes into a new part which is one part half-hearted acid-rock,   one part folky reflection.  Then comes the repeating synth pattern.  The Who and Pink Floyd did this better, but here MGMT are hell-bent to drive every psychedelic-prog-rock cliché into the ground.  Mercifully, the track finally fades.  It’s an unimpressive display. Next is “Brian Eno.”  Eno should be offended that he was mentioned on this record.  As a recording and producing legend, it’s hard to tell by the lyrics if this is in celebration of Eno’s work or veiled sarcastic insults aimed at either Coldplay or U2.  Either way, this is more of the same from MGMT, despite the track’s pep and tempo lift. “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” has a groan-inducing title.  It’s an instrumental that sounds like third-rate Stereolab, processed through a cheeseball horror kaleidoscope. When the screams come in, it just becomes too campy. The title track is the album’s final cut.  It would be almost a good song if the bassline didn’t sound so much like “The Weight” by the Band.  It’s evident by this point on this album, that MGMT seem like  straight-up imitators, trying to piece together lifted stylistic elements into something new.  They fail to do so in a compelling way.  I’m glad at the end of this record they clap for themselves, because no one else should be clapping for them.  If you have an urge to listen to “Congratulations,” you should resist it.  Go back and listen to “Oracular Spectacular” again.  As I said before, that wasn’t a great record, but it’s a hundred times better than this record.  This record, after the first two tracks sounds like rudderless sonic flailing disguised as art.  A better band could pull this off.  MGMT are not up to the task.  Not even the packaging is appealing!  It’s got one of the ugliest album covers in recent memory, with a picture of what looks like a cartoon cat doing a double-take, surfing a wave.  On the inside shot, the band looks like either a squad of upscale (pseudo-Victorian) pimps or like they should be hanging out with Devendra Banhart.  If this had been a better record, these cosmetic touches would seem merely like humorous quirks.  Instead they seem to add to the notion of virtual system-wide failure. MGMT need listen to their first record again and reassess what works in their sound.  When they are on the right track and are delivering a song like “Time To Pretend,” they can bring fun, fist-pumping fury.  Here, all that energy is lost in bizarre experiments in compositional noodling.  Some of you might find this record to be a misunderstood work of brilliance.  To you, I say, “Congratulations.”  You’ve been duped!!

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