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Album Review: Tame Impala – Lonerism [Modular]

There’s something incomprehensively magnetic about Tame Impala. Identifying exactly what makes the Australian band’s music so compelling is a challenge in itself, primarily because common sense says that psych-pop songs without much in the way of song structure and choruses shouldn’t go down so easily and smoothly. We’ve been trained on verse-chorus-verse, and anything else almost always falls into the “experimental” category. Then again, bands like The Flaming Lips and MGMT have achieved massive popularity while doing things their own way and going completely off the reservation more than a few times. If they can do it, why not Tame Impala too? They’ve even been working with legendary psych-pop producer Dave Fridmann, the man behind The Soft Bulletin and Oracular Spectacular, for their 2010 debut full length Innerspeaker as well as this new one Lonerism. The way in which he shapes Tame Impala’s sound into something more commercially viable can’t be ignored, though his magic is nothing compared to frontman Kevin Parker’s influence, which is so immense you might consider this band a solo project with a bunch of hired hands to recreate the songs in a live setting. Of course some of the other guys in the band might take offense to such a statement, but on any given song Parker is responsible for vocals, guitar, bass, drums and keys, which is essentially everything. He even reduces Fridmann’s normal job of in-studio producing to that of giving him the unmastered studio recordings and asking for judicial editing and a little bit of polish. It becomes an effortless blend of DIY home recorded aesthetic and present day glossy production, which is one of Lonerism‘s biggest charms.

While there is a certain modern aspect to the record, so much of it sounds like vintage ’60s psychedelia that under the right circumstances you might be able to fool a bunch of people into thinking it’s directly from that era. That task becomes even easier because Parker’s voice has enough John Lennon in it to convincingly present songs as some of the former Beatle’s long lost solo recordings. The day-glo vocal harmonies and quirky bounce of “Mind Mischief” for example feels cut from the same hangdog cloth Lennon often adopted, and the swirling shift it takes towards the end is gloriously “A Day in the Life”-like in nature. But Parker’s talents go beyond simple and unavoidable mimicry because he’s able to consistently find ways to challenge our expectations while still hanging onto a very real pop sensibility. Listen to the six minute swirl of “Apocalypse Dreams” to get a real taste of how he’ll change things up just as you’re starting to get comfortable. Instead of being disappointed by his yanking of the rug from underneath our feet, where things head next are almost always equal to or greater than whatever preceeded it. In other words, you’ve got to trust Parker has your best interests at heart and follow him into the darkness. There’s even a song near the end of the record that explains quite perfectly how you should approach these tracks: “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control.” That sentiment makes “Music to Walk Home By” music you can walk home by, and “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?” a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The two songs on the album that really break free from any influences and previous work are the trunk-swinging stomp of “Elephant” and the gloriously strange drift of “Sun’s Coming Up.” Both stand out for completely different reasons as they represent Tame Impala at their most focused and unfocused. The former engineers an energetic, bass-heavy groove that’s jarring compared to everything else on the album, but it hits harder and is more addictive than anything else that comes before and after it. The latter track closes the record and might as well be two songs in one – a waltzy, dramatic piano ballad at the start and a shimmering, psychedelic guitar instrumental at the end. That imbalance doesn’t really do it any favors, but it does make for an excellent way to close out the record. All the other songs fly by on a breeze, so this gentle application of the brakes prepares us for the end. We’ve had all night to play, and now it’s a race against the impending day. “Sun’s coming up now / I guess it’s over,” Parker sings wistfully as the last lines of the album. For all the disappointment and heartbreak that’s chronicled throughout Lonerism, somehow this one cuts the deepest. Perhaps that’s because we too don’t want it to be over. Buried beneath the sadness is also triumph – the realization that the record you just heard was a masterful display of what modern psych-pop can and should be. Tame Impala have expanded and refined the core sound of their debut into a confident work of art worthy of being named one of 2012’s finest.

Tame Impala – Elephant (Canyons Wooly Mammoth Remix)

Buy Lonerism from Amazon

Live Friday: 10-22-10

My personal opinion of MGMT has been very low for quite awhile, stemming from a pretty bad show I saw them play in 2005 before anybody had heard of them. It was that show, and their subsequent rise to fame in the last couple years that really upset me, especially as they were riding on the coattails of old songs they “re-released” as a “debut” album. Still, I won’t deny that songs like “Kids” and “Electric Feel” and “Time to Pretend” are really catchy, and I expected the band to make a bunch of similar-sounding songs for their sophmore record. When that second album “Congratulations” came out and it was filled with anti-pop psychedelic insanity, my opnion of the band changed dramatically. For once, being signed to a major record label, they made something uncompromising and difficult. Good for them. So I do like their latest album, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m featuring the band on today’s Live Friday. They stopped by the WXPN studios about a week ago and played a couple tunes, including the 12.5 minute “Siberian Breaks”, which is a whole mountain to climb unto itself. (P.S. – I apologize, but hosting/bandwith issues prevent me from uploading that song directly, so you’ll need to follow the link to zShare if you want to download the 18MB file…the other two tracks are simple Right click, Save As) Anyways, the band sounds pretty good, almost the complete antithesis of how they were 5 years back, though it helps there are some more members to help flesh out the sound just right. You can also stream the interview with the band by clicking the link below. They talk a little about why they didn’t just write a bunch of hits for the new album, and a number of other things they’ve learned while rising to the eschelons of indie stardom.

MGMT, Live on WXPN 10-15-10:
MGMT – It’s Working (Live on WXPN)
MGMT – Congratulations (Live on WXPN)
MGMT – Siberian Breaks (Live on WXPN) [zShare; follow link]

Stream the entire interview/session

Buy “Congratulations” from Amazon

Mid-Year Review: 5 Surprising Albums

Looking on the opposite side of the penny from yesterday’s Mid-Year Review of 5 Disappointing Albums, today sees an examination of 5 albums released in the first half of this year that have genuinely surprised me. To help clarify, as I also did yesterday, when I use the word “surprising albums”, it’s NOT intended to imply they’re the BEST or my favorites, but simply records that have caught me the most off guard. I was not expecting these records to be as good as they turned out to be, and I hope that if you haven’t heard these albums yet that you make it a point to sometime soon. As it was yesterday, these albums are not ranked, but are listed in alphabetical order to prevent such impressions from occurring. And on that note, what albums have surprised you so far this year? I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Let me know in the comments.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Beat the Devil’s Tattoo (Download: Conscience Killer)
After the disaster that was 2007’s “Baby 81”, my confidence in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was shot. Despite the relatively poor reviews their first two albums received, their fuzz-fueled Jesus and Mary Chain-baiting rock captivated me like few other bands at the time did. That they have been on a slow and steady drop in quality since then has been unfortunate. The reality is that I gave “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo” a listen more as a formality in preparation for another scathing review attacking their inability to commit to a sound and the lack of passion they’ve been putting behind their songs recently. What happened instead was that for the first time in a long time, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club finally sounded like they were back in a big way. Think of them like pro athletes that slowly spiral into the dangerous world of drug addiction. “Baby 81” was them hitting bottom, and now after a rehab program, they’re back in shape and almost in peak form. Let’s just hope they can keep on the straight and narrow from here on out. [Buy]

Charlotte Gainsbourg – IRM
For her entire life, Charlotte Gainsbourg has been living in the shadow of her father. No matter what she’s done, from her acting to her very sporadic music career, people almost always bring up Serge. In 2006, Charlotte released her first album in 20 years “5:55”, and given that she paired up with French pop duo Air, that record sounded like a tribute to her father rather than a statement of individuality. That wasn’t the intention, and thankfully for “IRM” she joined forces with Beck to make a diverse and fascinating record that’s actually the best thing either of them have done in a long time. We see a new side of Charlotte and though she didn’t write the lyrics or compose the songs, her vocal performance stretches beyond anything she’s done previously, and with more emotion too. [Buy]

The Futureheads – The Chaos (Download: Struck Dumb)
The Futureheads seem to have been slipping ever since their self-titled debut album. Of course a band that tends to specialize in short, 2 minute bursts of pure energy and hooks isn’t exactly built on a strategy for longevity. Still, continuing in their tradition of releasing a new album every two years, “News and Tributes” was a solid sophmore effort, but the band fell off the wagon when they tried to compose longer, more serious songs on their last album “This Is Not the World”. As if they’d gotten the message, “The Chaos” brings back to The Futureheads exactly what the title describes. Some of their poppiest, most addictive music since they first burst onto the music scene several years ago. Combine that with a highly combustible and insanely fun live show, and The Futureheads are more than equipped to surprise you in 2010. [Buy]

Local Natives – Gorilla Manor (Download: Sun Hands)
There’s been a slow and low build of buzz for Local Natives since their performance impressed so many at SXSW 2009, but I’ll admit to being late to that party. All too many times I’ve heard of bands being called “the next Grizzly Bear” or “the next Fleet Foxes”, only to be disappointed by these supposed next big things. When “Gorilla Manor” was finally released in the U.S. earlier this year, I wasn’t even fully aware of it until the high praise reviews started rolling in. Even then I was hesitant to even give them a try. It took stumbling upon the song “Wide Eyes” by accident one day while randomly surfing the internet to compel me to give Local Natives a try. And boy am I glad I did. The album is nothing short of amazing, and like Fleet Foxes scratched a certain itch for me in 2008, Local Natives satisfy that same part of my brain in 2010. This is an all-too-unheard album from the first half of the year that deserves every shred of recognition it gets, so if you’ve been holding out like I was, buy into these guys. They’re the real deal. [Buy]

MGMT – Congratulations
I’ve made it a point in the past to complain about MGMT. Their 2007 “debut” album “Oracular Spectacular” featured a handful of songs recycled from years old EPs, and it’s those songs that gained the band so much attention. That, along with an extremely poor live show from them I witnessed in 2005 drove my dislike of the band to near extremes. Well, their second record “Congratulations” earns them exactly that from me. Not only is it a full album’s worth of material that was completely written and recorded in the past year, but the songs on it give the proverbial middle finger to the rabid fans of their debut. That they didn’t go for the easy sell and made challenging, psychedelic songs while signed to a major label is seriously courageous. On top of that, the songs are pretty damn good too. Well played MGMT, you won me over and that was something I never saw coming. [Buy]

Album Review: MGMT – Congratulations [Columbia]

Before I officially begin to review the new MGMT album “Congratulations,” I feel that I should outline my history with the band, so you’re fully aware of my perspective and understand a little better as to why I’m saying the things I am. At its most basic, I despise MGMT. The first time I ever heard them was in 2005, when they were touring as the opening act for Of Montreal. While they were appropriately paired with Of Montreal, their live shows couldn’t have been more different. Compared to the showy spectacle that Kevin Barnes and the rest of Of Montreal put on, MGMT was like watching a poor man’s version of karaoke. Their set essentially was karaoke actually, because they had a boombox and would play the instrumental versions of their songs and then sing over them. No matter how compelling the songs might have been, the memory of those two guys singing with a boombox has stuck with me. Still, a friend of mine was inspired enough to buy one of their early CDs after the show, and as I was working in radio at the time, the band’s music was forced upon me as I was pressured to play them on the air. So the first MGMT song I ever played on the radio was “Time to Pretend,” and this was back in 2005. Honestly, it kind of grew on me. That and their song “Kids” was pretty solid too. Imagine my surprise then, 2 years later, when I found out that not only was MGMT putting out a new album, but that they were now signed to a major record label. What followed was a series of promotional efforts, where MGMT songs were licensed out to TV shows and movie soundtracks, and pushed for radio airplay. The thing about it though was that whenever I’d hear MGMT on a soundtrack or on the radio, it’d be the same 3 songs over and over and OVER again. “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” and “Electric Feel”. Upon hearing their last album (and official label debut) 2008’s “Oracular Spectacular”, not only did I note that a majority of the songs on it were from 2005, but that there were only 3 really good tracks on the album, each of which I just mentioned. The rest of it was largely psych-pop crap that unfortunately a lot of people were sucked into buying. The small coalition of MGMT supporters grew to the masses as those 3 good songs got more and more exposure and the band played summer festivals around the world. Throw in the fact that at some point in all this they actually recruited people who could play instruments on stage instead of a boombox, and suddenly these guys have really become an indie band crossing over into mainstream success. Yet here I am holding that against them.

So now we’re up to date. People have been chomping at the bit for this new MGMT record “Congratulations,” and given the success from the last album, I can understand why. Personally, given my stance on the band as outlined above, I’ve been actively rooting for these guys to fail. I sincerely don’t do that often and for many artists, and when I heard the new album’s first single “Flash Delirium,” a gigantic smile spread across my face. They’re playing it on the radio now, and I fail to understand exactly why, because it quite frankly sucks. Now before you stop reading, thinking this is going to be a full-on slamming of MGMT and the extension of an “unjustified” vendetta I’ve carried against this band for years, I want to tell you that is by no means the case. See, much of the grand purpose in spewing all this anger towards the band is to explain that sometimes there are life lessons to be learned from these experiences. That said, I was also pleased to read that many fans of the band were upset with not only “Flash Delirium,” but also the entirety of “Congratulations” once they’d heard it via leaks and/or online streaming. All of this built me up and got me excited to hear the album, analyze it, and most likely write an angry review further denouncing the band. But much to my surprise, and ultimate disappointment, that turned out to be not the case at all.

See, “Congratulations” is not a horrible album. Hell, it’s not even outright bad. Nor is it a triumph, but it’s certainly better than it needs or deserves to be. The surprise the band pulls, and it’s something nearly no band in their right minds would do, is that they spit directly in the face of assured commercial success in favor of doing basically whatever the fuck they want. For that reason, and for that reason alone, I stopped in my tracks and forgot about how much I dislike these guys. It takes serious balls to break convention with such ease, and for all I know it’s going to talk them straight out of their major label record deal, but good for them for sticking to their guns. For all my wondering as to exactly why MGMT would choose a song so strange and uncommercial as “Flash Delirium”, I didn’t stop to think that maybe it’s because that’s one of the more straightforward cuts on the album. Compare it to the 12 minute collage that is “Siberian Breaks” or the instrumental of “Lady Dada’s Nightmare,” and you understand why “Flash Delirium” might get chosen.

As much as I’m impressed with MGMT’s “devil may care” attitude with this new record, it’s something that becomes both a strength and a weakness. Listening to “Congratulations” from start to finish in one sitting, there’s definitely a trippy, highly psychedelic vibe that permeates most every aspect of the album and lends it a cohesiveness you just don’t get by listening to a single song. It’s part of the reason why, on the surface, a glancing blow like “Flash Delirium” can come off as crass and completely out of its element on the radio, but one of the more brilliant moments when sandwiched in with the rest of the record. So if you’re able to take in the entire album as one long acid trip and an open mind, there’s the very real possibility new doors will be opened for you and you’ll come away with positive vibes. Taken from a different viewpoint however, the way this record plays out can be a bit annoying. Does “Siberian Breaks” really need to be 12 minutes long when it sounds like sketches of 4 separate songs? The short answer is no, and that goes for many of the tracks on this album as they flutter from piece to piece with little or no regard towards when one song begins and another ends. Yes, the tracks don’t bleed into one another, but like a pair of children with severe ADD, there will often be pieces of multiple songs contained within one singular track, be it 4 minutes or 12 minutes. Just when you start getting into a certain groove, suddenly the rug is yanked out beneath you in favor of a new direction and just like that you’re lost again. It works well in some cases, as with the obviously-titled opening track “It’s Working”, but gets more mixed reaction in others, such as “Brian Eno”. This is, in fact, pretty much the same exact problem I had with the last Of Montreal album and its similarly skewed take on unfocused psych-pop. I’d like to think that MGMT do them one better here though, mostly because their constant paradigm shifts feel more tempered and even-handed.

Earlier in this review, as I was cursing MGMT for their poor live shows and use of recycled songs, I said that there was a lesson to be learned from it. For me, that was to never judge a band by their past. Sometimes, they might just come back and surprise the hell out of you, as was the case here. With “Congratulations,” these guys proved to me that not only can they write an album’s worth of decent material that doesn’t date back to their pre-label days, but also that they really don’t give a shit about what you or their label might want. Certainly the majority of their fans would have preferred a full album’s worth of gems like “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel,” and that they didn’t even try to repeat that success shows me their interest is in artistic integrity rather than a quick cash grab. So this record alone is enough to convert me into not so much a supporter of MGMT, but more like a distant admirer. I can honestly say with conviction that they have made their strongest and most consistent effort to date, and though it doesn’t blow minds like some hoped it would, I’m okay with that if you are. If you fell in love with this band thanks to a couple strong singles on their first album, I might warn you away from “Congratulations,” but for the rest of us, it might be worth picking up if you can buy it for under $10 (hint: it’s on sale most everywhere this week for $8).

MGMT- Flash Delirium

Buy “Congratulations” from Amazon

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