When MGMT played an outdoor show at Artpark this summer, the “glass half-empty” view of the proceedings might have suggested a psychedelic music stripped of its give-and-take relationship with the audience – a new trippy music for kids, but with the unfortunate aspect of a spectator sport replacing the give and take. Nonhaters might have taken the other view – that here is a psychedelic music very much of its age, and if 16- to 25-year-olds dominated the Artpark crowd, well, isn’t that a good thing? Shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that music of such eccentric and eclectic tendencies is being embraced by a generation that could just as easily be listening to Skrillex and Miley Cyrus? At Artpark, MGMT did with electronic dance music what early prog-rock pioneers did with primitive synthesizers – they toyed with it, and bent it to their will. Such disregard for “rules” is usually a healthy sign in the creative arts.
The problem, if there is one, with MGMT – principally, the duo of Andrew VanWyngarden and Benjamin Goldwasser – is that the group’s 2007 debut effort “Oracular Spectacular” is such an unblemished masterpiece that it has made the two albums that followed it seem like a letdown. So the naysayers inevitably line up and cry foul. (That the majority of these naysayers probably fell head over heels for the first album and are now, OMG, so totally over it, makes them seem far more fickle than the MGMT guys may or may not be.) If MGMT can’t re-create “Oracular,” then they must be a joke, such logic suggests. Early reviews of third album “MGMT” tended to follow this train of thought.
Thing is, MGMT hit with the “Oracular Spectacular” tracks “Let’s Pretend,” “Kids” and “Electric Feel,” three songs that come far closer to conventional pop structures than anything the band did on the rest of its debut, or in the time since. In a sense, they gave listeners the wrong idea about the band. That Artpark show, with its gauzy psychedelia, its blatant strangeness and its druggy underpinnings, was far more like the real MGMT. And so is this new album, which was rather unkindly granted Spin magazine’s “Worst New Music” stamp last week. More fool you, Spin – “MGMT” is a fortifying psychedelic snack, a soft-focus journey through the considerable musical imaginations of VanWyngarden and Goldwasser and their producer, Dave Fridmann. Anyone looking for concise pop hooks won’t find them here, but that’s far from a deal-breaker, as the “otherness” of the music and the litany of compelling sounds that complement the harmonic constructions more than make up for the absence of conventional structure.
The record starts strangely with the aptly named “Alien Days” – heralded by a child’s voice letting us know that “Sometimes the windows combine with the seams” (huh?) and a tune that heads straight down the rabbit hole into Wonderland – and gets weirder. The closest the album gets to conventional pop music is the comparatively sunny single “Plenty of Girls in the Sea” and its much more bleak counterpart “Your Life Is a Lie,” but the tyranny of the catchy chorus and instantly recognizable verse-chorus structure is something VanWyngarden and Goldwasser seem intent on rebelling against. That means pieces like “Introspection” and “I Love You Too, Death” live up to their admittedly esoteric titles and deliver a form of intricate musical freakishness that will make you feel like you’re on drugs whether you happen to be or not.
It all adds up to a fascinating listen for anyone who finds psychedelic music to be much more than a lark – a legitimate form of imaginative expression rather than a fashion statement. It may not feel or sound so instantly identifiable and magical as “Oracular Spectacular,” but “MGMT” certainly obliterates the sophomore slump that was 2010’s “Congratulations.”
My advice? Turn off your mind, relax, and float down stream.
– Jeff Miers
A truly great record.
Tierney Sutton sings Joni Mitchell, and if you think that even tells a fifth of the story, forget it. This is not just a jazz singer doing meaningless, pseudo-hip-showoff drivel on the music of a wildly idiosyncratic master composer of American pop music. This is the gorgeous Joni Mitchell tribute disc of a woman who begins her notes to it thusly:
“Shortly after Y2K fizzled into nothing, a friend said to me in hushed tones, ‘Have you heard it yet?’ ‘It’ was Joni Mitchell’s 2000 tour-de-force album ‘Both Sides Now’ with orchestra arrangements by Vince Mendoza. It is composed of mostly standards, and it is the vocal album that I have listened to more than any others since its release. I consider it to be alongside Sinatra’s ‘Wee Small Hours’ and Billie Holiday’s ‘Lady in Satin.’ ”
Amen, sister, amen. That is a jazz singer who gets Joni Mitchell, who understands what she can do following her example on her extraordinary songs and what she can’t. This is not, then, a jazz singer like Roseanna Vitro, who did an album of Randy Newman songs with so much inappropriate jivey drivel that there wasn’t much point in singing Newman at all (whose songs are among the most idiosyncratic extant).
Maybe it helps to be Canadian. Ever since Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” Diana Krall has so often sung standards with Mitchell’s clear-cut influence that you have to believe that Canada’s female singers have an inside track into Mitchell no one else does.
It isn’t that Sutton isn’t creative – sometimes wildly so. She does “Big Yellow Taxi” alone accompanied by Ralph Humphrey’s brushes on drums. “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines,” the best from Mitchell’s misfired collaboration with Charles Mingus, is sung Mitchell’s way but with a Hubert Laws solo she has to love. There’s no way that “Woodstock” – which was, by the way, written before the event despite its past tense lyrics – Sutton can’t match the sweetness and sensitivity of Mitchell’s upper register swoops, but what she does with the song’s low notes over Larry Golding’s piano is close to magnificent.
Other participants in Sutton’s brilliant Joni Mitchell project include the Turtle Island String Quartet and Al Jarreau.
It ends with a mash-up of “April in Paris” and “A Free Man in Paris,” which shouldn’t begin to work, but it does with a gutsy cunning that evinces a great jazz singer’s almost perfect understanding of one of the greatest singer-composers of her time.
– Jeff Simon
With the Jeff Hamilton Trio
No kidding. The great old character actor with the luxuriant walrus mustache thinks he’s a jazz singer. And he is, in the same way your music-loving Uncle Ralph is i.e., he can more or less carry a tune, even if it isn’t very far, and he can approximate dimly a song’s emotions with complete sincerity. He can occasionally hit a note with enough sweetness that you don’t immediately want to leave the room.
But compared with the actors who have given us credible discs in the past decade or so – Joe Pesci’s imitation of Jimmy Scott or Robert Davi’s impersonation of Sinatra or Molly Ringwald’s affirmation of her family’s jazz indoctrination – the redoubtable Brimley, for all his lovely sincerity, couldn’t really give us much more than a “hey, wait until you hear this” party disc.
The disc is the result of drummer Jeff Hamilton’s generosity toward a serious fan of his trio (featuring Tamir Hendelman and Christoph Luty.) A sweet gesture toward the old boy, but …