Ought - Room Inside the World

Revolutions never begin with whispers. On their sharp-witted debut, More Than Any Other Day, Montréal-based post-punk Ought posited self-reflection as a series of rallying cries that could easily rile up the most meditative of basement parties; frontman Tim Darcy and crew stressed the conversational tone of post-punk but assumed the role of self-deprecating worrywarts. Amidst their constant me-versus-you debacles, they ridiculed and diminished human’s addictive fixations in standout “Habit” and dined with risk and juvenile fear on “Around Again.” The following year, Sun Coming Down curtailed their sardonic self-obsession with wavering anger toward our social institutions delivered under the same biting pretenses as its predecessor. Ought have made themselves out to be a companionable force within range of answering life’s pressing questions one scrappy anthem at a time.

Unwilling to cut their maturation short of their zenith, it’s only appropriate that their third effort connects their skeptical ethos with the global complications of our times. Room Inside the World is far from a concise statement handing out solutions, decisively muddled by Darcy’s subtle and often disorienting songwriting, but that’s customary at this point. As for their typically sinewy resonance, the band has enlisted veteran engineer Nicolas Vernhes of Deerhunter and Animal Collective fame to man the controls and augment their minimal line-up with flashy organs, strings section, and a sort of cocktail lounge space in place of their previous cluttered recording environment. Reading between their scribbled lines and paring down their opulent advancement in sound, there’s a theatric and rigidly idyllic atmosphere this time around that incorporate the same overtures sprinkled in the discographies of absurdist companions like Parquet Courts or pitiless dramatists like Iceage. Unlike their peers, Ought never contended to neatening their expression from low-fidelity distractions; instead of speculating as to what the hell Darcy could be saying, it’s his implications and convictions that require a cross-examination or two.

Album promotion cycles suggest that a final product’s merrier or more straightforward numbers take precedent as singles, but Ought’s morose choice-cuts attest to something foreboding with Room Inside the World. As an introductory gesture, “These 3 Things” isn’t forthright counter to any selection in their recorded works. With its drum machine beat wrestling the handicraft away from beatmaker Tim Keen and Ultravox-inspired synth splatters, it’s a revolution that instills a newfound language the four-piece attempts to translate with growing confidence. Much of this boldness feels left over from Darcy’s solo debut, Saturday Night, a self-described roots record that seemed to trigger a relapse and total makeover for his main project. The romanticism, on the other hand, is more direct and immersive, as evident in the trailing lines of “These 3 Things”: “I must remember to dance with you tonight / I must remember I owe my heart.”

The lack of constant navel-gazing will undoubtedly bookend their discography to some degree, but Ought aren’t rushing into things without ensuring they’re as precise as possible in the process. In the past, Darcy’s sensationalism evoked the same sort of smartass convictions a wide-eyed coffeehouse dweller would wield—now, they feel drowned in a hedonist’s sorrow. “Feel disdain in people now / Deep dark grey fades into blue,” Darcy croons in the piano-lead introduction of “Into the Sea,” moments away from a premature climax of compressed drum marches and angular guitars crashes through. Almost facetiously, Darcy swings back on the loquaciously sentimental “Desire” with his senses refreshed and undivided vengeance trapped in his intentions (“I won’t accept the conceit any further / I will return it to you in a fervor”). As a consequence, their footing might seem out of proportion, especially in the lenses of veteran listeners bargaining for the ramshackle monologues and head-scratchers expected from the group.

As if expending all of their employable energy in the first half, the latter four numbers strip down as if to prematurely entreat listeners to intoxicating melodies. “Brief Shield” renounces every exemplar of vivacity in a heavenly blend of slowcore and broody post-punk, the sort of effect achieved by slowing down a Durutti Column master tape and tampering with the mix to reassemble a passage from the Church’s Starfish. Embarking on a breezy, otherwise sluggish indie pulse on “Pieces Wasted,” it’s not long until each gyrating and grating voice, except for Ben Stidworthy’s steely basslines, falls out of place and chokes up the soundscape into droning gunk. Room Inside the World concludes with such an ostensible drop in sparkle that brings the band’s motives into question; if they’ve arranged for an album that half parts melodic vitality with an experimental streak unvisited in previous works, the effort is undeniably compelling to some extent. Under the surface, its straightforwardness warrants an appraisal that eulogizes the stamina of Ought’s past and forecasts something more significant on the horizon for the band to tackle.

You can check out Ought on Spotify, Youtube, SoundCloud, and Bandcamp.

Flying Hair @ The Holland Project. 1/31/18. A Weeknight Hodgepodge of Sounds and Styles

The massive drum kit on stage before Tresed’s set, refinished in a deep red and sporting horns on its kick drum spurs, suggests a brashness that the young players make good on. They open the Thursday night Holland show with enough fervency to make you wonder about the structural limitations of hickory drumsticks and nickel wound guitar strings, and indeed, during a drum break a few songs in, a stick shatters, though no one seems to care.

That intensity persists throughout their set, projecting a stage demeanor that’s refreshing in its lack of polish. Where many bands rely on sampling pads and perfunctory recitations of the night’s lineup to theoretically liven up any dead-air in their set, Tresed’s tuning breaks are quiet enough to hear strings twang. They smile and crack jokes to their friends off stage.
They’re high school kids. Their braces, white Chuck Taylors, and complete lack of pretense make me realize, perhaps fully for the first time, at twenty-three, that I’m not a teenager anymore. The drummer clicks in on splintered sticks and they go all out: heavy rock riffs and extended instrumental breaks, a random burst from a fog machine, a sans-sticks drum solo. Watching them do it is mesmerizing in that it reminds me of something I didn’t realize I’d forgotten: that playing music, despite its ability to soothe existential sores and express what conversation can’t, is, perhaps most importantly, for fun.

While Tresed is sparse in their gear and stage presence, Flying Hair needs every square inch of Holland’s stage to hold their half stacks and pedal boards. They transition out of sound check with a crescendo-ing alarm effect that their bass player/vocalist pitch modulates with alternating clicks on what look like WWII era radios and sound like bomb raid sirens on an intergalactic air force outpost. The synth rig craps out during their second song, stalling momentarily the galloping, riding-on-a-dragon’s-back momentum that I, still high on Tresed, want to go on indefinitely. The keys are quickly functioning again, and FH’s set, as it continues, becomes more varied. What initially seemed like a set of straightforward, fuzzed-out fist-pumpers is interpolated, exactly when needed, with half-time sections, sluggish triplet fills, closed hi-hat grooves, and palm muted bass breaks.

And soon there’s the sort of moment that only happens in the presence of live music. What had been a driving, backbeat carried tempo descends gradually into glacier paced mayhem: a bent string, twisted pedal-knob drone, a half-time stoner metal crawl that goes on and on, and swelling over everything shrieks an ambient frequency like a radio transmission coming through from another dimension. The moment expands and I no longer worry about what to do with my hands or whether anyone notices that I’ve come here alone.

It’s typical of Holland bills to feature a medley of styles; if Flying Hair is like stuffing yourself on pasta and meatballs, Ichthyosaur, the last band of the night, is the bit of chocolate you crave immediately after. The tone is cleaner, the decibel level significantly reduced. Harmonics, chorus pedal, an acapella Happy Birthday dedicated to the bassist’s father, a Kings of Leon cover. Applause as a yardstick, they’re the crowd favorite. Heads sway with the band’s catchy riffs and three part vocal harmonies, nod along with driving bass lines deftly rendered on a Rickenbacker.

It’s enough, on the drive home, to make the Center Street lights hum with something I’d forgotten to listen for, the reality of tomorrow morning’s shift suspended for a little longer.

Check out Flying Hair’s Bandcamp here.

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.