MGMT - Little Dark Age

All of MGMT’s work since their 2008 debut “Oracular Spectacular” seemed like a reaction to their meteoric success. They could feel themselves becoming trapped in our collective eighth grade nostalgia and needed to escape.

On the title track of their sophomore album  “Congratulations,” Andrew VanWyngarden bitterly sang “It’s hardly a sink or swim/When all is well if the ticket sells.” Their self-titled album sounded dense and joyless, as if they wanted to punish their fair-weather fans. On “Little Dark Age,” their first album in four and half years, they let go of sour feelings and head off in a new direction.

The sonic palate consists of a dancey, psychedelic 80s synthwave. The keyboards, drum machines and bass seem like they originate from a range of cheesy 80s B-movie soundtracks, from ski race to detective thriller to workout tape to romance to porno. Except on acid.

Some would call this pandering to everyone’s wistfulness of the era, but there is something much more sinister at work. The songs are too dark and experimental to allow the listener to become sentimental. Although this album digests easier than their last album, they still include all their oddball idiosyncrasies.

The production on the first three songs is frantic and oppressive, nearly suffocating. It sounds like they recorded the vocals underwater. The title track and “When You Die” have a Gothic flair.

But as the album proceeds, it loosens up and becomes much more open-ended. “Me and Michael,” a kaleidoscopic masterpiece, feels like driving around with the windows down during a July sunset. If the album loses its steam on the second half, it regains its composure in a major way with “Hand It Over.” The track is quite possibly the best song MGMT has ever written and a perfect album closer to play as the credits roll. The instrumentation is lush but the production is minimalist, allowing the chorus to soar into the heavens.

On early songs like “Kids” and “Time to Pretend” it seems like they started with a catchy synth riff, then backtracked. On “Little Dark Age,” those keyboard lines still pop up, albeit more subtly. Their focus has shifted to song structure, melodies and better sound mixing. The songs on “Oracular Spectacular” are for huge crowds at Coachella to jump up and down to. The songs on “Little Dark Age” are for a dance party in your basement with your closest friends.

It seems they refined their focus in nearly every aspect. Their early work concentrated on creating an overarching atmosphere for an album. On “Little Dark Age,” they perfected the mechanics on every single song. Their earlier work painted broad lyrical strokes about the human condition. “Little Dark Age” fixates more on interpersonal relationships. With songs “Me and Michael” and “James” introducing specific characters, it makes the music much more intimate and nuanced. “We can both say who’s laughing now,” VanWyngarden sings on “James.” “It’s yours and it’s mine,” he sings on “Hand it Over.”

The lyrics often become existential. VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser are both 35, approaching middle age. On “When You Die” VanWyngarden sings “You die/And words won’t do anything/It’s permanently night/And I won’t feel anything/We’ll all be laughing with you when you die.” On “One Thing Left to Try” he sings “I don’t wanna die/Wishing I’d done something/Before then what’s required/To last until the sunset.”

A little dark age, in my mind, marks a period in someone’s life fraught with frustration, dissatisfaction and misdirection which they can only appreciate after the fact. MGMT seems to acknowledge coming to terms with themselves on this album. On the title track, he sings “Just know that if you hide, it doesn’t go away.” They discuss the ups and downs of fame on the folk lullaby “When You’re Small.” He sings “When you’re big/And troubles seem so far” … “When you’re low/You reach a certain point/Where you can’t see the point.” I have never been famous, but I would assume one of the most difficult things is the loss of anonymity. He sings “When you’re small/You can curl into a ball.”

The only song I can say I don’t particularly care for is “Days That Got Away” which seems like an unnecessary instrumental interlude on a relatively short album. Otherwise, “Little Dark Age” excites the listener. With each go around, the album continues to unravel, layer by layer. It stands as MGMT’s strongest effort front-to-back and capitalizes on the potential they have flirted with for the past decade.

 

This article originally ran in the Nevada Sagebrush.

Palm - Rock Island

Guitar music is in a peculiar place right now. At the very least, it’s in another transition period. If there is any one band in 2018 to commandeer that transition, it is Palm.

A band turning guitar music completely on its head, Palm consists of four Philly-based musicians, forming at a liberal arts college in New York City. Their incorporation of electronics and unconventional sounds in their music made their last EP Shadow Expert ear-candy for anyone bored with the trite delay-smothered tremolo picking that comprises many similar guitar-based genres. Bassist Gerasmisos Livistano and drummer Hugo Stanley’s ability to seamlessly spring between an air-tight lock to a buoyant sprint deconstructs rock/guitar music from it’s base- providing the bedrock for guitarists/vocalists Eve Alpert and Kasra Kurt’s experimentation.

Some might call it art rock, some call it math rock- it’s all semantics. Where most math rock/art rock bands call it a day in their experimentation, it’s Palm’s morning coffee. A group truly pushing the musical envelope, Rock Island is already one of the year’s standout releases.

Palm band members
Palm, courtesy of their bandcamp

The three singles released for Rock Island make up the first three tracks of the album, making the rest of the album a fresh listen for those who followed the build-up to the LP. The deceleration at the end of “Dogmilk” serves as a fantastic precursor for the rest of the record, leading into “Forced Hand”, Rock Island’s most stark example of their “rock music backwards” sentiment. The whole track feels like it was written in reverse; accents placed opposite where they’re anticipated, instruments dancing around the stereo field freely.  About a minute and a half through the track, the light breaks through the clouds briefly to allow Alpert to bask in the warm sun before returning to the turbulent swirl of the verses.

The unpredictable shuffles in rhythm/feel during the instrumental “Theme from Rock Island” make the track standout as more than a segue to the back half of the record. The back half of the record provides some of Palm’s most intricate work (“Bread”), which is noteworthy considering their catalog. The horn section and claps during “Swimmer”, the album’s most accessible track, provide relief between the rhythmic jogs of “Color Code” and “Heavy Lifting.” Kurt’s yearning line “All I do is make believe you’re mine” gives way to gleaming electronics, reminiscent of closed eyes looking at the sun on a beach.

The album’s climax, “Heavy Lifting,” starts intricately jaunty, building steadily by the end of the first minute. By the time you think you’re able to start tapping your foot, you’re thrown ten feet deeper into polyrhythms and vividly bright guitars dancing back and forth. A section around 1:40 appears to be your reassurance, until it becomes the driving force you were hiding from. The song gives as much as it takes- as soon as you think you’re out of the thick, you’ve entered a section twice as complex. The push and pull of this track in particular makes it Palm’s most ambitious yet.

Few bands have pushed the genre forward in the past five years as Palm has. At no point does Palm compromise complexity for accessibility, and it works incredibly well in their favor. Palm’s ability to give, take, and utterly surprise is what might save guitar music.

Shopping - The Official Body

Post-punk may as well be one of the few lingering genres that actively bridge old and new through the most engaging and strident methods attainable. The tightly-coiled basslines, unbendable rhythmic power, and decades-long minimalist streak never fall short of skillful and knotty songsmith. In the eyes of Shopping, London’s 21st century reincarnate for old stagers like Public Image Ltd and This Heat, post-punk is what dictates their limber pulse and calibrates even the most stingy of their melodies. Professedly accepting the relatively harmless allegation of wearing their influences on their sleeve, the trio retaliates with a breed of dance-friendly, expressionless rock music for audiences of all temperments to admire.

On their third full-length album, The Official Body, Shopping meander through a funk-inspired core with political overtones lagging behind their elastic beats. In its 31-minute duration, the ten snappy numbers successfully intertwine the decompressed urgency of Wire’s Pink Flag with the nihilistic, anti-everything rhetoric bubbling up in today’s youth. There’s a traceable gimmick for each track: de facto frontwoman Rachel Aggs’ barbed and repetitive guitar licks in the spotlight, Andrew Milk’s clear drum exercises chugging faithfully behind, and the band’s apparent propelling force, Billy Easter’s stout basslines holding it all together. Occasionally giving in to alternate means of expending their stockpiled energy, the band taps into playful vocal duality between Aggs and Milk as well as embellishing their otherwise frank compositions with buzzing synthesizer hooks à la Killing Joke. For the most part,The Official Body abides by careful restraints to make its directives transparent to the audience and its energized messages resounding with each listen.

The Official Body band members

Speaking to Bandcamp about these motivations, Aggs conceded, “As a band, it’s really important for us to laugh, and have fun, and to be really silly—that, in itself, is a defiant act.” While Shopping’s closefisted instrumentation often curbs their potential for aggressive defiance, it’s not misguided to label The Official Body as a protest record even if its arrangements cut back rather than climax. The Liquid Liquid akin dance-punk of “Discover” and “New Values” are captivating exceptions to their unswerving technique. Jarring opener “The Hype” kicks the album off with a midtempo stomp while simultaneously leading a youth revolt against classroom conformity and corporal discipline. Treading into empowering territory, “Suddenly Gone” claps back at the society’s inflexibility of acceptance toward queer artists and artists of color. It’s an uphill effort to classify these topics as easy to swallow, but the band’s artful approach channels these frustrations into sophisticated songs of discontent.

While it’s amusing to see bands like Shopping taking the piss and scrutinizing humanity’s regressive traits in the same song, The Official Body inevitably encapsulates our tendencies as members of an imperfect society to guise our anxieties with seemingly convincing façades. “You have a chance to lead the group,” Milk even suggests in the bustling midpoint “Shave Your Head,” advising the listener “it’s not forever” and it “doesn’t matter.” “My Dad’s a Dancer” further disavows a desire to follow a crowd of lurking bigotry with Aggs’ taunting unseen enemies in the pursuit of adversity (“Taking up another space / Do you deserve this? / You wanna take my place?”). It goes to show that in The Official Body, laughter is not only the best medicine against societal ills but a mechanism denying them victory. Shopping deconstructs these uncertain times ushered by one’s individual obligation to confide in their own beliefs instead of falling in line with an antithetical mankind.