31 August 2010

Review: Broken Bells and MGMT

{ What's broken with MGMT? And why have Broken Bells managed to do just fine? }

Artist: Broken Bells
Album: Broken Bells
Label: Columbia
Length: 35m 50s
Release: 9 March 2010

Artist: MGMT
Album: Congratulations
Label: Columbia
Length: 43m 53s
Release: 13 April 2010

Two highly anticipated albums were released on Columbia this year and one is still getting constant airplay here on the Pet Bear Sounds stereo while the other is starting to collect digital-dust deep within the Pet Bear Sounds hard drive.

At first glance listen, you would think that MGMT was poised to take over the world. Their 2007 release, Oracular Spectacular yielded some spectacular singles. You know the story, "Time To Pretend" was absolutely massive and ended up on every other hip television show or film. "Electric Feel" is guaranteed head-bobs no matter where you are and the Justice remix of the song is equally good (if not better!). And if "Kids" doesn't make you want to jump up and dance, you may have to get your heart checked 'cause you might be dead.

These amazing singles sandwich really underrated songs on the record like "The Youth" and "Weekend Wars."

There's your first half of the record. The second half of the record is where the wheels start to come off.

The "flip" side of Oracular Spectacular hase some pretty forgettable songs especially in comparison to the material they gave us on the first half of the record.

This is where the alleged versatility of MGMT shines (insert liberal use of air-quotes here).

And this is where they fall flat.

With their latest effort, Congratulations, the question for me was, "Will it be more of the same?"

And, frankly, I was certainly hoping for more of the same! More of those hits that I heard on the first half of Oracular.

What I got was more of the second half of the record.

Congratulations can be a fun record, I suppose. "Song For Dan Treacy" is a fun, '60s-style romp, complete with that "Palisades Park" sort of keyboard line.

The first single off the record, "Flash Delirium" is okay. Nothing to write home about.

NPR calls the album adventurous:
"Congratulations is musically adventurous, featuring nine psychedelic, space-inspired tracks."
Adventurous? More like boring and half-baked.

Honestly, their most inaccessible song (it's 12-minutes long) "Siberian Breaks" is really the only song that stands out in my head as truly adventurous. There are some fantastic The Association-style basslines and some gorgeous harmonies that remind me of The Mamas and the Papas. It's an epic throw-back with a delicious modern twist.

{ MGMT - "Siberian Breaks" }

The rest of the record? It's just okay.

Maybe I don't get the whole neo-psychedelic-pop thing that they're trying to do. But I fancy myself a big fan of '60s psychedelia and I'll take The Zombies, The Association and '60s-psychedelia-revival bands like The Brian Jonestown Massacre any day of the week.

The members of MGMT have said themselves this is an album without any singles:
"MGMT band members Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser have dubbed their second album, Congratulations, a "no singles" album."
I appreciate the effort to create a proper "album" and say "fuck you" to the single. God only knows how much I long for well-crafted albums to make a comeback. But as an album Congratulations falls short and there aren't any singles. Double whammy.

Maybe it's a "no singles" album because they weren't up to the challenge to write an epic single? Perhaps this is a transitional record, a bridge to a stellar third album that combines the best elements from the first and second record. We'll see.

The self-titled debut album by Broken Bells is the record that MGMT wanted to make. Broken Bells is the album that MGMT wishes they could make. But MGMT lack the maturity and the composure in their young career to produce such a record.

Is it unfair to compare upstarts MGMT to a carefully crafted project created by one of the best producers in music (Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse) and The Shins frontman James Mercer? Yah, probably.

But MGMT set the bar high. Expectations were great for Congratulations.

And maybe that's why the Broken Bells record sounds so good. There were pretty much zero expectations.

Nah. The Broken Bells record is just really that good from start to finish.

But there are more similarities between these two albums than you might think.

It's kinda like when Dreamworks released Antz and Pixar released A Bug's Life. Similar movies. But you knew which one was better from the get-go.

The psychedelic vibe of a Broken Bells song like "Your Head Is On Fire" could easily find a place on the latest MGMT effort. And a song like "Mongrel Heart" does what MGMT could not do on their latest release: write a good pop song.

To add insult to injury, "Mongrel Heart" has that carnival-sounding, "Palisades Park" keyboard line that's featured in "Song for Dan Treacy" on the MGMT record.

Broken Bells are beating MGMT at their own game.

{ Broken Bells - "Mongrel Heart" }

From the opening track, "The High Road," you know that the Broken Bells record is going to be fantastic and really sets the vibe and tone for the rest of the record. James Mercer's care-free vocal melodies are neatly wrapped around the cool, laid-back music.

Broken Bells weighs in at an efficient 35-minutes and you can easily start the record and listen to the entire album without skipping a track. Or a beat. A mark of a great album.

Is Broken Bells the best album of 2010? When all is said and done, it's going to be right up there.

And MGMT's record will find itself near the bottom of the list.

Congratulations to Broken Bells for releasing a fresh and exciting record. A record that will surely get a lot of spins on the ol' hard drive.

As for MGMT? Better luck next time.