23 June 2010

The Live Vault: MGMT & Tame Impala

20 June 2010
Riverside Theater, Milwaukee
[On occasion, our far-flung correspondents attend and review shows. Here's another installment.]


Every few months, a band reaches the charts in a very unconventional way. They are not put on every Top 40 station payola style, they are not hyped by MTV by slyly putting their songs into boring parts of Jersey Shore, and they are not part of a YouTube sensation that got Usher’s attention. The group in question puts out material, to middling or good critical reviews, earns a loyal but relatively small fan base, and then their most popular (or pop-like) song inexplicably reaches the ears of the unwashed masses. This is the case with California based duo turned quintet MGMT. More than a year after their stellar debut album, Oracular Spectacular, came on the market, Billboard started to pay attention and all of a sudden everyone knew “Kids” and “Time to Pretend.” Shortly after, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser were featured in interviews in Rolling Stone. There would be no more banal “Best New Band” articles for MGMT. They were on every 13-63 year old’s iPod, and it seemed as if they were here to stay. And they are. But not in the way everyone thought.

In the 5000 seat Riverside Theater in Milwaukee this past Sunday, the crowd was paltry at first, but exponentially grew as showtime approached. The ones who got there early would be unfortunate enough to witness the set from Andrew and Ben’s openers, Australian fuzzy Pitchfork darlings Tame Impala. The band fell relatively flat live. Although the landscapes (I refuse to use the word soundscape without irony) sound expansive and challenging on their album Innerspeaker, the four piece failed to deliver. Granted, the crowd was filled with people who had paid $27.50 to hear three songs, but the group had very low energy. Even in high energy Cream and Stooges evoking songs like “Lucidity” and “Alter Ego”, the band failed to move more than two steps out of place. They failed at the main task of a supporting band: getting the crowd excited for the main act. The set was thoroughly boring. I wanted to like the opener so much, but unfortunately they were a letdown. Why they decided to only have one microphone on stage for a small library of songs that somewhat depend on harmony is beyond me. It also did not help (understatement) that their set consisted of the first two-thirds of their debut album. In order.

I was disheartened after this performance, and so was the rest of the crowd. Unenthusiastic and obligatory applause were the only bones thrown to the not-so-seasoned Aussies. The lead singer, looking like a Black Crowe turned San Franciscan, led his carbon copy hipsters off the stage in search of something to be happy about. I only say this because I didn’t see the band so much as smile during the show. Tame Impala put on the comforting cloak of a shoe gaze band, but the reality was that they were just intimidated by their first tour. Leaving on a low note, the crowd was left to marinate for a short 40 minutes until the boys they all came to see walked out on stage.

All looking considerably less mod than as of late, MGMT didn’t waste time getting in to their deceivingly complex work. The band was not manic or overenthusiastic, but it was evident that they were confident and very aware of how many people had nearly sold out the large venue to come see them perform. They dealt with this task by staying the relaxed yet still emotionally relatable and unpretentious. Their fame had split into many camps by this night, and they knew it. As evidenced by their music videos (see “Time to Pretend” transition to “It’s Working”), they have become less of a band that shook popular music out of its autotuned soulless hovel, and more of a group that still wants to stay relevant by changing themselves and see who comes along for the ride. Congratulations, their spring 2010 and latest release, opened to mixed reviews. Some writers complained that there were no blowout tracks akin to Oracular Spectacular’s “Kids” and “Electric Feel.” Congratulations, like the band as a whole, does not want to be defined by one or two pop savvy songs that were discovered by your friend Madison who says “They’re, like, the best songs ever.” Congratulations is an album that is great because all of the songs play a role in making the whole disc sound like it is cohesive - and more importantly an important part of modern music as art.

The band’s new attire and attitude for performing evidenced this new feeling. They played a show which had a set list that wasn’t totally churning out their most well known songs as the last part of the show so people couldn’t leave while they played new material. The set encompassed their whole, though relatively small, repertoire. This proved to be a small problem for MGMT because some of their music is, to put it harshly, crap. It’s pretty self indulgent to play two 14 minute songs in one show if you’re not Sigur Ros or Dave Matthews Band or some other group that gives itself excuses to have painfully long songs/chill jam sesh’s/noise layered on top of other noise. But these two lowlights seemed brief among the other great music. These other songs served to not only prove the point that these kids were here to stay, but also as a device to hide the lengthy ones. Perhaps they played both long-players because Milwaukee was the last stop on their current summer tour, or maybe they didn’t care to venture out by playing covers or presenting much new material that hadn’t been heard. There is also the possibility that the songs seemed bad to me because of the very fickle crowd. Usually at a concert like this one, people come to hear a few songs they’d listened to ad infinitum through the radio or crappy mix CD’s made for them, and then enjoy everything else because they’re too drunk to know better. This crowd was very different. When not playing either “Kids”, “Time to Pretend”, or “Electric Feel”, the crowd was at different levels of cognizance, ranging from catatonic to slightly interested. But let me tell you, when those three songs WERE played, it was one of the cooler live experiences I’ve seen in Milwaukee. The whole crowd sung every word, danced, and genuinely had a good time.

MGMT came into the set knowing their novelty had been used up, but no one in the crowd had seemed to care that they were still cranking out genuinely good music. They took a huge risk by changing their musical identity while still being newly discovered by 80% of the audience. This reviewer admires them for doing so, even if it did not translate perfectly to a live show. The musicians are tight and well acquainted with each other and the material, just enough that they could all put their personal flourishes on a genre that is sometimes knocked for simply being replayed for rote. The complex and very cool light and video show being played on separate 10 foot overlapping shapes was enough to keep the generators of frequent puffs of smoke from the pit entertained. At times, the screens simply flashed “M G M T” in light bulbs that could line the mirrors of an old time Hollywood dressing room. I liked this a lot more than when they played three different video feeds of hazard signs and frightened looking girls in a green filter. The bulbs really represent MGMT’s cool and calm stage presence among the glitz and hype emanating from all around.

Some may want MGMT to go back to playing synth heavy and The Hills friendly jams, but they benefit from their multilayered explorations into jazz and surf rock. Even if the crowd (specifically a particularly inebriated girl behind me singing the opening riff to” Kids” in between every song) doesn’t particularly want them to.

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