Sunday, February 03, 2008

Album Review: MGMT - Oracular Spectacular (4/5)

Good music takes confidence. In rock, it's often the result of either hard-won success or the boldness of youth. MGMT (say "M-G-M-T" not "management") derives theirs from the latter, as demonstrated on their debut, Oracular Spectacular, a modern, poppy set that shows its '70s and '80s influences on its sleeve. To just look at the band--two young men often shirtless or costumed--says a lot about what must be their current state of mind. Ready to take on the world, they've given themselves a fantastic launch.

"Time to Pretend" is the brilliant opening track, starting off with a swirl of synth effects and establishing an optimistic melody that quickly transitions to the song's upbeat melodic core. Playful lyrics about dreaming of fame ("this is our decision to live fast and die young") mix well with the layered '80s-sounding synths that are currently in vogue.

In contrast, "Weekend Wars" sounds like '70s progressive rock, kissed with spacey synth riffs. Keyboard sound effects are even more prominent on atmospheric "The Youth." Elements of these songs remind me of The Flaming Lips album I reviewed a few weeks ago, as do the weird closing tracks "The Handshake" and "Future Reflections" (lo and behold, both albums were produced by Dave Fridmann). "Electric Feel" also features a heavy does of '70s-ish keyboards, but is influenced more by funk than prog rock.

"Kids" is the album's second obvious highlight after "Time to Pretend." It has a similar '80s electro sound, with a repeating keyboard refrain over a plodding bass-driven rhythm. With deeper voices they could be Depeche Mode here. This is very danceable stuff. The tempo remains fast on "4th Dimension Transition," whose experimental grandeur recalls Muse's recent album.

It's not all cool '80s synths and psychedelica though, as the mostly acoustic "Pieces of What" shows MGMT has other interests too. Drums, electric guitar and even strings (though they may be synths sounding like strings) kick in about halfway through this earnest, Oasis-like ballad. "Of Moons, Birds & Monsters" takes another trip through the '70s--trip being the key word here, with lyrics like "even a bird would want a taste of dirt from abyssal dark." Huh?

Lyrical confusion abounds through a lot of the band's songs. Some of them, like "Time to Pretend" are easy to understand, but others are very bizarre, and may not need to be understood lyrically (if that is even possible) to be enjoyed musically. I'm not much of a lyrics guy anyway, so I don't mind. I'd rather focus on good hooks and melody, which Oracular Spectacular, as the title implies, delivers.

Best: Time to Pretend, Kids, Weekend Wars, Electric Feel, Pieces of What

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