Music

MGMT: Congratulations

The bad news: there’s no "Kids" here, so don’t go looking. The good news: there’s no "Kids" here, and MGMT is perfectly fine with that.


MGMT

Congratulations

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2010-04-13
UK Release Date: 2010-04-12
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“I hope I die before I get sold,” quips MGMT towards the end of Congratulations. It’s a clever one-liner, belied more than a little by the band’s gold-certified, Grammy-recognized stature. That it comes during the heavily anticipated follow-up to a wildly successful debut feels bitingly sarcastic. That it comes halfway through “Siberian Breaks”, however -- Congratulations’ prog-inflected, marathon-length centerpiece -- seems eerily appropriate. The song is the logical culmination of the album’s defiantly anti-commercial tendencies; embodied here, in these fiercely psychedelic 12 minutes and 10 seconds, is its staunch refusal to cater to fan expectations what MGMT is, was, or should be.

Much clearer, then, is the firm expression of what the band won’t be, starting now: a singles act. Like Pearl Jam in 1993 -- reeling from both the expectation and disillusionment wrought by a smash debut -- MGMT has presented its sophomore effort as an explicit attempt to grapple with, or perhaps even question, its massive success. “It's us trying to deal with all the craziness that's been going on since our last album took off,” explained VanWyngarden. “Sometimes it just doesn't feel natural.”

Pearl Jam chose not to release any music videos from Vs. MGMT insist now that Congratulations won’t yield any singles. (Yes, “Flash Delirium” was made available in March as a free download; no, that doesn’t make it a single.) It’s not so drastic a decision when you hear the album. There’s nothing here approaching the radio accessibility and synth-driven immediacy of a “Kids” or “Time to Pretend”. Nor, I think, will there even be a dark horse hit in the vein of Oracular’s transcendent, disco-tinged “Electric Feel”. Gone entirely is the self-conscious divide that detached Oracular Spectacular’s hit-laden first half from its more sprawling, spacey latter half. Congratulations flows like an album in the classic sense of the term, and Goldwasser seems sincere in his plea that listeners don’t “just figure out what are the best three tracks, download those, and not listen to the rest of it.”

And so, in the absence of Oracular’s pulsing, dance-ready synth-pop, Congratulations takes its cues from the cosmic-charged psychedelia of that album’s latter half. With half of Spacemen 3 behind the production board, this should come as no surprise. Pete Kember’s production manifests itself in far unsubtle ways -- in dense sheets of Panda Bear-style reverb, in thick organ flourishes and flute solos, in the detuned piano arpeggios that close out the title track. “I Found a Whistle” seems most directly culled from the Spacemen 3 ilk. Awash in swirling organ fades and acoustic guitars, the track feels like a weary “Pieces of What”-meets-Playing With Fire hybrid that reveals itself on repeated listens as one of Congratulations’ most rewarding moments. Elsewhere, Kember’s influence seeps subtly into the album’s terse, frenetic punk tributes to Television Personalities’ Dan Treacy and Brian Eno, both songs among its most immediate, lighthearted moments.

The album’s whirlpool psychedelia may seem a logical progression, but its decidedly retro tinge adds a striking counterpart. “It’s Working”, for example, blasts open the album with frantic surf-rock flourishes and thinly veiled drug imagery (“Turn the noise on / I'd like to feed my poison”); then, somewhere along the way, appears the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” drum loop, only to segue into a triumphant doo-wop refrain. It may be the first time a variation on the '50s progression (see: “Stand By Me”, “He's Sure the Boy I Love”) appears on an MGMT record, but it’s not the last. The excellent “Someone’s Missing” treads similar '50s chordal territory, merging falsetto-tinged disco balladry with Kember’s organ soundscapes -- that is, until the echo gives way into a euphoric Motown groove lifted from the “I Want You Back” bassline.

If that track’s Jackson 5 appropriation feels eerily natural, then “Flash Delirium” -- a breathless pastiche of doo-wop, '50s rock ’n’ roll, flute solo, and a punk climax -- fails in part because it sounds so forced. With its clumsy transitions and hollow attempt at social commentary (“Stab your Facebook / Sell sell sell”), the song’s grasp of self-conscious, White Album-style irony (“Happiness Is a Warm Gun” seems the clearest reference point) feels shallow and stilted -- like second-rate Of Montreal. Thankfully, “Siberian Breaks”’ huge length affords it far more time to develop and breathe, its Floydian prog influence obvious but never overpowering (or drenched in smug ironic detachment à la “Flash Delirium”).

“Out with a whimper / It’s not a blaze of glory,” goes a line in the title track, and it’s all too true. The album’s closing moments far fail to measure up with the inventive stylistic pastiches that come before. With its casio drums, muddled piano build-up, and novelty screams, “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” is little more than “Great Gig in the Sky”-lite, while the title track concludes on a thoroughly forgettable note. The lyrics seem vaguely to deal with (surprise!) fame and disillusionment: “All is well if the ticket sells.” And then: “But all is lost if it's never heard.” Despite its flagrantly anti-commercial tendencies, Congratulations will, without question, be heard, and by millions. But as what -- an all-too-familiar expression of post-fame disillusionment? a fearless psych-rock masterpiece? a shape-shifting tribute, both lyrically and musically, to retro influences? -- remains unclear.

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If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

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There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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