[Rating: 4 stars]
A friend of mine once described standing on the stage at a British festival as MGMT attempted to perform their set. The afternoon crowd had swelled to a massive sea, spilling out of the tent where promoters had scheduled the band to play. Ravenous fans crawled up canopy buttresses in an attempt to better see their beloved outfit from across the pond. The tent shook, forcing stage managers to call the show for fear that some sort of injury was near. Like The Beatles, my friend said. Unbelievable. How could a group inspire such melee, having released their debut less than a year before?
Such is the phenomenon of MGMT, the Brooklyn-based duo that has grown from playing makeshift fraternity parties on PVC-pipe stages in Athens, Georgia, to battling French politicians and headlining summer festivals. They’ve built their castle on a foundation of psychedelic-pop gold. Songs on the debut like “Kids,” “Time To Pretend” and “Electric Feel” attract both sorority girls and music geeks alike, while at the same time, creating a backlash in certain circles unable to accept the fact that the band could be this BIG. So how do Andrew Van Wyngarden and Ben Goldwasser respond to the masses’ response? What road do they venture down with their follow-up? Congratulations holds the answer.
Throughout the last year, MGMT recorded their sophomore albums in several locations, including Malibu, Brooklyn and upstate New York. Spacemen 3 co-founder Sonic Boom, a.k.a. Pete Kember, produced the project, one that can only be consistently described as inconsistent.
“Congratulations” draws first examination, though it’s the last track. It’s perhaps the most immediate song on the album –a three-and-a-half minute self-assessment of the band’s current state of affairs. Van Wyngarden sings of profitable ticket sales, money advisors and assistants that “draw his blinds,” when all he really wants is his friends to offer him the praise he deserves. But one needs to take these lyrics and the song’s straightforward pop approach with a grain of salt, as the rest of Congratulations does little to convey the same idea or structure. Van Wyngarden and Goldwasser have seemingly made an album for themselves. Gone are the aforementioned hits, replaced by tracks more similar to the most dissimilar cuts on the debut.
MGMT plots a strange course for their listeners with Congratulations, but the material here often exceeds that of the band’s initial full-length. The first two cuts see the album storming out of the gate. “It’s Working” is a driving track which sprints along exhaustive rhythms and massive psychedelic explosions. “Song for Dan Treacy” finds MGMT exploring their inner B-52s. Surf rock guitars and “Rock Lobster”-esque synthesizers leave one to envision Fred Schneider and Cindy Wilson go-going across the stage. Besides the title track, these two are the most pop-oriented songs on Congratulations. They are also two of the strongest in MGMT’s catalogue.
“Someone’s Missing” slows the pace to a lull. Like “I Found a Whistle,” the song re-explores and builds upon the musical themes of, say, “The Youth” or “The Handshake,” both of which held strong hooks within their swirling depths. “Flash Delirium” demonstrates the influence of the band’s collaboration with Of Montreal. The throbbing bass line could have been lifted from either The Sunlandic Twins or Hissing Fauna. Regardless, it’s an immensely catchy song, one that further reminds of MGMT’s ability to sprinkle candy amidst its off-kilter, psychedelic creations.
“Siberian Breaks” also illustrates their knack for infectious underlying melodies. Running a hair over 12 minutes long, the cut owes considerably to the styles of Air. In spite of the song’s length, MGMT fashion a track that keeps a strong grip on your attention with unpredictable breaks and deft arrangements.
All in all, Congratulations pushes MGMT in the right direction. Rather than resting on their deserved laurels, Vanwyngarden and Goldwasser challenge themselves sonically, creating a follow-up that will test even the most astute audience.