MGMT are at a crossroads, and their problem came wholly to life during a live show at Miami Beach’s Fillmore theater the other night. The alternative pop/psych-rock outfit straddles a daring line by dabbling in progressive rock while also being responsible for constructing some all-too perfect disco-pop songs, which has hurtled them to the top of the charts. The execution of both forms and the reactions to both were on vivid display last night at the Fillmore.
First some context: When their second album, Congratulations, debuted earlier this year, it nearly unseated Justin Bieber’s album on the top of the Billboard charts, reaching number two but falling off steadily after. When the article appeared on Entertainment Weekly’s Music Mix blog, some fans of both Bieber and MGMT admitted to owning both albums.
What an unpleasant irony. MGMT have striven all along to be an art-rock group, and they have proven their knack for amazing music by constructing both groovy retro funk ditties like “Electric Feel” while also pulling off moody spacey-psych experiments like “Future Reflections,” both from their debut album Oracular Spectacular, which shot them to indie and even pop stardom.
In an article on Billboard.com, just ahead of the release of Congratulations, MGMT’s founding members, Andrew Vanwyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, expressed their apprehension of success and the pressures that come with the expectations for a band as successful as MGMT. What at first began as an ironic joke– mixing progressive music with a sure-handed approach to pop– has become a burden, and that drama visibly unfolded on Fillmore’s stage last night.
The all-ages show certainly attracted the rambunctious teenie boppers, as evidenced by the screams that greet and end each song I captured on video below. We tried to make it to the front with the aid of our fastlane tickets, but were overtaken by running kids who crushed us into the barricade. Despite ending up right up front, we gave up our spot to two small girls behind us and headed for the balcony to take in the show leaning back in chairs and calmly drinking beers.
The balcony provided a good view to take in the walkouts after “Electric Feel,” which segued into the two lengthiest songs of the night, an extended jam version of “the Handshake” followed by the epic “Siberian Breaks” from the new album.
One should not take these walkouts as a cynical commentary to the extended, artier songs of MGMT’s repertoire, but a reflection of the fair weather fans MGMT’s hits have attracted in its following, which do include some of the ignorant teen hipsters that saturated the place. Let’s face it, these teens are mostly clueless as to the groundwork that has informed MGMT’s music. I doubt most understand how fully Brian Eno’s early 70s albums, beyond the name of one of MGMT’s songs on Congratulations, has informed their aesthetic. But kudos to anyone who understands the reference to Oblique Strategies and what it has done to create great albums by David Bowie and Talking Heads, among others.
As “the Handshake” and “Siberian Breaks” provided the soundtrack to the emptying crowd, which included some neighbors next to me in the balcony, you can also hear some disinterested chattering during the quieter bits of these songs. Most people were not into it or did not get it. I for one, loved to hear them stretch “the Handshake,” which is under four minutes on Oracular Spectacular, to such epic length.
Listening to it all the way through, it might just be segueing into another song, but as far as I can tell, this added section only contains two lines “Keep your silence to yourself/You won’t forget yourself.”* Maybe this is the beginning of a new song, but in this context it totally worked like the epic coda of “Future Reflections.” If it is a new song, it’s a nice, long and spacey addition to MGMT’s repertoire, and also featured some great, over-the-top guitar soloing by James Richardson.
As for “Siberian Breaks,” I was only able to capture the first half before my memory card filled up. Still, it is a certain someone’s favorite part of the song, so here it is:
What you do not see in the video above is, toward the end of the 12-minute opus, when the song breaks down into dreamy burbles of noise, bassist Matt Asti walks away, and the band carries on. Then it’s off with “Kids,” which is all backing tracks! Vanwyngarden and Goldwasser take to the stage, mikes in hand, to dance around like a couple of b-boys and sing along, leaving drummer Will Berman and Richardson to mime along by tapping the sides of the drum kit, clearly a bit bored, though still smiling about the silliness of it all. Who knows? Maybe Ben and Andrew were even lip-synching to the song, and the only thing real was the crowd’s screaming during the break down of the song. The audience ate it all up, despite the fact that the band was trying to parody itself. A photographer did post a video of that night’s performance of “Kids” from down in the crowd, which you can see here.
It’s ironic that on their debut EP as MGMT, “Time to Pretend,” the duo threw in a snippet of “Only Time Will Tell” by eighties prog-poppers Asia in an early version of “Kids,” which closes off the EP. It’s an ironic reference to what was then a pop supergroup composed of luminaries from such previous prog-rock outfits like King Crimson and Yes . It might have been a send up then but now it might portend MGMT’s very own fate, unless they do something serious, like maybe just dropping the hits from the set-list and playing smaller venues? Radiohead refused to do “Creep” when it became a hit, and look how they turned out.
Another psych-rock band burdened by zeitgeist-defining hits is the Flaming Lips, but they never refuse their fans “She Don’t Use Jelly” or “Do You Realize.” But at least they pay respect to the songs while turning their sets into giant parties, even if they noodle on and on with crazy prog-rock bits (the parts I prefer). In my post about their recent live show in Orlando, the Flaming Lips certainly indulged in several songs from their new prog-heavy Embryonic. But, like those great early Genesis days with Peter Gabriel at the helm, they know how to turn the songs into spectacles.
Plus, when you see Wayne Coyne and his crew perform, you cannot help but feel the love he has for his fans, which transcends to life and humanity. Many tears flow from the fans when he sings “Do you realize you have the most beautiful face,” while also singing “Do You Realize that everyone you know someday will die,” and it’s not from fan-girl zeal but from a deeper reverent place in the soul.
Vanwyngarden definitely showed an effort to connect with the audience at Miami Beach’s Fillmore, but even when he I said, “I love you guys” to the crowd he had to tag on “I really mean that,” when he had his back turned to the audience. Despite this strained attempt at sincerity, what mattered is that these guys rocked the stage with true passion for their music. Having seen some MGMT performances prior, even on TV, when they just can’t seem tot get into it, I had reservations going in. But, that night, they had energy, and it showed, despite the crowd reaction and interaction. Still, there was something heavy hanging over the show.
In a lengthy review I wrote for Congratulations, I praised the band for their indulgence in the progressive side of their music. Though some have derided this second album from MGMT for not producing anything as catchy as “Electric Feel” or “Kids,” I think it is not for a lack of musical skill on the part of MGMT. I truly hope they continue to break away and continue listening to bands like Krautrock legends Cluster, as one of the band members admitted to in an NPR interview around Congratulations‘ release. Screw them walk outs, and keep rocking, MGMT.
*Edit: According to an MGMT fan on the MGMT Fan Forum this is a cover of Magazine’s “Burst,” which they have done live on other occasions. Looking it up, I found a live version by Magazine from 1978, and actually MGMT take the coda of that song, and tag on to “The Handshake” to great affect.
(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)