Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden began playing and recording demos in 2001, during their freshman year at Wesleyan University, but didn’t get serious about music until after graduation. After releasing a homemade download-only EP as the Management, the duo shortened its name to the more text-message-friendly version when it signed with indie label Cantora in 2005.
MGMT retains the DIY approach of its collegiate efforts on Time to Pretend — as “DIY” is understood in the 21st century. The duo combines vintage-sounding keyboards (and cheap-sounding ones), synthetic percussion and occasional touches of electric guitar, and captures it all with the latest home studio software. Unlike the indie rock of preceding decades, the result doesn’t fly in the face of big-time studio craft with a defiantly grimy sound; it steps up to it with a bright finish that’s all on the surface. The title track presents the duo’s view of rock stardom as destiny, fate and fantasy: “This is our decision / To live fast and die young / We’ve got the vision / Now let’s have some fun / Yeah, it’s overwhelming / But what else can we do?…We were fated to pretend.” The remaining five tracks are catchy synth-pop about “hi-fi fellas and low-fi chicks” (to lift a line from the insistently pulsing “Destrokk”). “Boogie Down” builds up a head of dance-funk steam vaguely reminiscent of early Prince, complete with the come-on, “Girl, you know I wanna check out your components…You keep on bombing up the place like you own it.” “Indie Rokkers” churns with a cool, sleek, new wavey momentum. “Love Always Remains” (re-recorded from We (Don’t) Care) is the EP’s most well-realized tune, despite (or perhaps because of) the mix of child-like unison vocals and AutoTuned voice on the closing refrain. Pleasant and superficial on first listen, Time to Pretend has insidious, glammy hooks that sink in after a couple of listens. (Cantora reissued the EP after the success of MGMT’s next release.)
Working with Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden expand their musical palette on their major-label debut, Oracular Spectacular. The album retains much of the synth-centric sound of Time to Pretend (not to mention two songs from that EP: “Time to Pretend” and “Kids,” which was first on We (Don’t) Care), but MGMT blends plenty of ’60s psychedelic pop and early-’70s prog and glam (including more than a trace of Ziggy Stardust in VanWyngarden’s singing) into that profoundly ’80s-identified style. More important, though, is the duo’s increased focus on melodies and hooks. “4th Dimensional Transition” and “Pieces of What,” with their gently strummed guitars, retro keyboards and echoey vocals over bubbling percussion, both develop a spacey, astral-traveler feel that almost any Nuggets-era band would’ve gone to church to achieve. “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters” continues that trip, with a lilting melody over complex instrumentation, theremin-like noises, a few surprising tempo changes, and lyrics that warn the listener against holding onto past disappointments: “Don’t you know about the temperature change in the cold black shadow? / Are you mad at your walls / Or hoping that an unknown force can repair things for you?…If the ship will never come, you’ve got to move along.” The duo builds “Weekend Wars” from a stripped-down acoustic-guitar-and-percussion opening to a densely layered mixture of early Queen and Sparks. (The tune also includes a tongue-in-cheek description of the impulse that’s started countless rock bands: “It’s difficult to win unless you’re bored.”) With its rhythmic insistence, spacious groove and falsetto harmonies, “Electric Feel” could’ve appeared on Side Five of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. (The synthetic flute hook clinches the comparison.) In “The Handshake,” the duo reflects on signing to a major: “I just shook the handshake / I just sealed the deal / I’ll try not to let them take everything they can steal.” Like its predecessor, Oracular Spectacular is full of deceptively superficial-sounding pop that sneaks up to grab the listener. (The CD’s pathetically ugly cover art sure doesn’t. Pity that Columbia replaced the retro meeting-the-angel illustration that accompanied the download release.) The CD includes the video for “Electric Feel.”
Within a year, the mainstream rock media tagged MGMT as a leader in “the new psychedelia,” thus giving short shrift to the enduring efforts of such acts as the Apples in Stereo, Animal Collective and Of Montreal (with whom MGMT had toured as an opening act before recording Oracular). Regardless of whether Goldwasser and VanWyngarden had wanted to lead (or even join) any such movement, they didn’t hesitate to run with it. Enlisting Peter Kember (aka Sonic Boom, co-founder of Spacemen 3) to co-produce the all-important sophomore disc telegraphed the band’s bid for credibility. Expanding to a five-piece (making touring guitarist/keyboardist James Richardson, bassist Matt Asti and drummer Will Berman full-fledged members), MGMT narrows the scope of influences on Congratulations and sticks mainly to the overtly psych elements of its sound — specifically, the more winsome, playful, Syd Barrett-identified variety of ’60s psychedelic pop (right down to VanWyngarden’s faux-English accent). This approach gives Congratulations less variety than its predecessor, but the songs are consistently melodic and engaging, and the CD flows beautifully from start to finish. In the driving opener, “It’s Working,” the guitars and harpsichord ascend through minor and major keys, with backing vocals from former Luna member Britta Phillips and a lyric that might be a reference to the eclecticism of the band’s previous work: “I see the signs of aging / And if I try to feel it all / I am deceived.” The peppy in-joke “Song for Dan Treacy” (“…and I don’t know where he lives”) would’ve fit nicely on almost any of his albums with the Television Personalities. The name-dropping doesn’t end there: “Brian Eno” is a campy tribute to the producer (“I followed sounds to a cathedral / Imagine my surprise to find that they were produced by Brian Eno…I can tell that he’s kind of smiling / But what does he know? / We’re always one step behind him / He’s Brian Eno”) that does recall the new wavey feel of MGMT’s pre-major label work. On the film-score-styled instrumental “Lady Dada’s Nightmare,” the band limits the pop-culture reference to the allusion in the title. “Someone’s Missing” builds from a quiet, delicate track with falsetto vocals to a sunny early-’70s pop vibe. The album’s centerpiece, “Siberian Breaks,” is a suite that maintains its melodic allure through five “movements,” even though none of them is terribly dissimilar to the others. (Goldwasser and VanWyngarden have both acknowledged that none of these songs stands out as a single, but that didn’t stop them from releasing “Siberian Breaks” — all 12 minutes of it — as one anyway.) By the time the disc closes with the light, folkish title track, though, the verdict is pretty clear: MGMT’s first long-player may have included catchier singles, but Congratulations is the better album, trading Oracular‘s deceptive superficiality for psychedelic grandeur. Of course, like all psychedelic things, that grandeur is pretty deceptive, too.