Wednesday, April 23, 2008

MGMT - Live at the Doug Fir Lounge, Portland, OR 2008/04/22

MGMT are an electronic rock band out of Brooklyn, NY, who dropped one of this year's most versatile and exciting albums with their debut disc, Oracular Spectacular. If you judge a group by their album covers (there are no less than two for this one), there's both a neo-hippie, Burning Man-flavored tribalism at the heart of the group, as well as a warmly nostalgic, yet updated nod to 70's prog, rock and glam. When you listen to the record itself, all of these aesthetics are exhibited in sound, from the chorused falsettos on the very dancy "Electric Feel", to the sarcastic, Prozac-driven rock star narration of the album's opener, "Time To Pretend".

They saved this track for later at last night's show at the Doug Fir Lounge, opening instead with the album's second song, "Weekend Wars". On the record it sounds like an outtake from Ziggy Stardust meshed with Led Zeppelin's "Thank You" and filtered through Prince's Paisley Park studios. In the audience at the Fir, it sounded like a wave of distortion. Once the sound person inhaled a little of the reefer madness going around and got a handle on the equipment, things improved noticeably with "The Youth", another dreamy, mild-mannered psychedelic pop song. This is more Lenny Kravitz' 70's than it is Hawkwind's, so things never get too spaced out here, but that's a compliment to MGMT. "Of Moons, Birds & Monsters" was similarly done in tasteful fashion, conjuring up an alternate reality where Neil Young performs vocals on a driving electronic rock record. (Ok, that actually occurred in our own reality, but let's not revisit Trans right now).

"Kids" had a tasty little groove that had shoulders rocking back and forth, and I was surprised to find several people in the crowd actually singing along with "Pieces Of What", which last night sounded less like a somber Dream Syndicate song and a little more like "Another Girl, Another Planet". But it was "Electric Feel", which starts out with a cutesy synth line reminscent of the keyboard hook in Men At Work's "Down Under" before steering into the "Emotional Rescue"-like vocals, that was the most anticipated song of the night, judging by the number of people I heard calling for it in between songs. The pent-up enthusiasm of gel-haired clubbers and earth-huggers alike was unleashed, and the band kept it at full throttle by then launching into "Time To Pretend". Amazingly enough, the club didn't immediately empty out afterward, in spite of the fact that MGMT carried on with some psychedelia that was far less accessible and clearly indicative that the Mothership was fast approaching.

All of which will likely give you the impression that Peace, Love, Unity, and Rock Respect ruled the night, but in fact there was an unsettling emptiness about the whole affair onstage. I spent half the show trying to figure out what it was, and then it suddently struck me -- Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden hadn't looked at each other the entire time. Not once. Not even by accident to bare their fangs and spit at each other. For a band which conveys such a spirit of community on record to have it's two principle players refuse to acknowledge each other's existence onstage is downright unsettling. Hopefully it's a just a temporary bout of irritability and not a sign of deep unrest between the pair, and things will end like a Harold and Kumar film, with the two guys going on some wacky, wild adventures that ultimately end with their friendship becoming even stronger. After a lot of weed, of course.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Joseph Arthur - The Second Coming

The second installment of Joseph Arthur's quartet of eps for 2008 hit the shelves on tax day (that's April 15th for those of you either outside of the US or simply evading The Law), and it was a quirky little piece of electro-flavored love. While last month's Could We Survive was somewhat ephemeral and quick to fade into the background, this new disc features several visceral tracks that refuse to be marginalized.

"Killer's Knife" is the opener and it grabs your head immediately with a sharp acoustic strum and a thick, rubbery bass sound. Sixty seconds in, and you know this is the most exciting song Joe has released this year, trumping anything on the last month's offering. You're ready for more of the same, but then the ep spins you into in unexpected place with the next cut. It's a Prince-flavored piece of rocktronica appropriately titled with a numeric as "Nothing 2 Hide", and features a slightly funky bassline with vocal parts done both in falsetto and in a helium-buzz reminiscent of the Purple one's late-80s foray into his alter-ego, 'Camille'. Greg Dulli dropped by to lend his voice to this one as well, and with so many vocal stylings darting in and out of the mix it makes you wonder if the song title was tongue-in-cheek.

The "Naked Gun"-like chug of "I Wanna Get You Alone" follows, and is the first of three tracks featuring fellow Astronaut Jen Turner on vocals; here, she takes a turn as a Lolita-like lay remarking how it's past her bedtime, while Joe's insistent call of "I wanna get you alone" repeats like the determined mantra of a desperate man.

Delightful schizophrenia follows throughout the rest of this disc. Faint echoes of Johnny Thunders' "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory" come through on "Radio Euphoria"; "Low"-era Bowie sound effects open up "I Come Down", and a reference to the 'world's forgotten sons' superimposes the personas of Iggy Pop and Jesus Christ onto Joe's to form his own version of the Trinity. This collage of imagery fits in well on a song so heavily-laden with religious metaphors and drug references.

Then, just as you begin to wonder if he has lost himself in the crowd, Joe brings it all back around with "Hunter", the ep's languid closing track which is ultimately a self-referential nod to earlier sounds of his own. Conjuring up the ghosts of Junkyard Hearts (another quartet of eps that he recorded several years ago), it is also reminiscent of the last track on Our Shadows Will Remain, with it's preoccupation over suicide and yet another lost rock and roll soul. That time it was a dirge for Ian Curtis, but the lament seems more personal here. Nevertheless, we'll have to wait until next month's ep to find out in what manner Joseph Arthur will choose to be reborn.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Musical Independence

Today was Independent Music Store Day, but I sincerely hope you've been supporting your local shop more than once this year. Music doesn't exist in an electronic vacuum: it's as much about what you bring to it as what it brings to you. Obtaining music only through one medium-quality downloaded song at a time devalues the work and neuters the creative process, in that it fosters the thinking that art is an unimportant, disposable commodity. It also cheapens our individual lives by isolating us from the world at large. Good music should be as much about communication with each other as it is about instant gratification for your ears. Music is the language of life: how can songs about love, fear, drugs, God and politics mean anything to you if you avoid interacting with the world around you?

So get out there to your shop. Give a spin to something new on the listening station. Find someone looking for a disc in the section of a band you're familiar with and recommend something to them (to the guy I recommended The Cure's "Head On The Door" 2-disc reissue to -- I hope you love it!). Ask an employee what their favorite record is and try it out; maybe even consider breaking out of your comfortable bubble of familiarity and get them to recommend something in a genre you're interested in but know nothing about. (I'll be giving Lee "Scratch" Perry a whirl for the first time this week, myself, courtesy of Portland's own Music Millennium).

Talk to people about which music excites you, and why, then have them share their own picks. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you find out about yourself and others if you only take the time to truly listen. Besides, it's not as if you can't be selective in who you talk to; if you decide not to chat up the strangeling doing the pee-pee dance at the front counter and asking when the next New Kids On The Block cd is coming out, no one will hold it against you.