REVIEW BY: Melanie Love
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/02/2008
It might signal a problem that my favorite thing about this album, the debut from super-hyped Brooklyn-based duo MGMT, is a track that isn’t even actually on the disc; it’s the funked-up Justice Remix of “Electric Feel” with its thick, distorted beats and crunching riffs. Oh, and I do like the album name itself, too, because Oracular Spectacular, in theory at least, is pretty excellent. But for all the hype, this disc is missing something -- some heart below all the sun-warmed harmonies and big doses of jumpy, jittering synths.
Recent Wesleyan grads MGMT (comprised of Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden are part of the latest crop of college rockers (see Columbia alums Vampire Weekend, Ra Ra Riot out of Syracuse University, and Harvard’s Chester French, among others). Their sound is anything but classic brick-front Ivy League, though; instead, it’s a pretty blissed-out blend of pop and psychedelia, woven through with threads of everything from the hippie beauty of the Mamas & The Papas to Muse’s ‘70s prog fancies to catchy, charming Britpop.
The most cohesive display of the band’s sound is the record’s three singles, “Time To Pretend,” “Kids,” and the aforementioned “Electric Feel.” Though criminally overplayed, album opener “Time To Pretend” is a lovely blend of chattering synths, handclaps, and blurry drums that pairs memories of “the playgrounds and the animals and digging up worm” with the declaration, “I'm feeling rough / I'm feeling raw / I'm in the prime of my life…This is our decision to live fast and die young.” It captures both an uncertainty and a flying-high euphoria with a shimmering backbeat and the visceral lyrics.
“Kids” is an appropriate (and less overplayed) sequel to “Pretend” with its swirling electronic beat and churning drums, VanWyngarden’s upper-octave, dreamy vocals pairing well with the slivered, surreal lyrics that play out almost like a memory themselves. Meanwhile, “Electric Feel” has a slow, sexy groove and a swerving bassline, plus a limber falsetto; still, I’m partial to the jolt of energy that the Justice Remix pumps into this track.
It’s in the songs between the solid singles where things get a little dicey. “Weekend Wars” is like Queen intersecting with Muse, only with a lot less spark; the nasal whine of the vocals here get grating quickly, while the synths and harmonies are piled on in an overblown attempt at being epic that doesn’t really come together. “Youth” again sounds too forced with its programmed beats and an unnaturally high sounding vocal, though it does take a turn for the better when the real drums and bass kick in and the song finally dissolves in a gorgeous swirl of harmonies.
The second half of the disc struggles to navigate its way between electro-pop and rock: “4th Dimensional Transition” has a big title with little substance to back it up, just mid-tempo instrumentation that never really rises and again, a dizzying onslaught of electronic bleeps; “Pieces Of What” is just messy, too long even at barely three minutes with its hazy vocals and loose acoustic strums, while “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters” veers toward an intriguing psych-rock sound, aping The Zombies until it collapses halfway through into a blur of fuzzy guitars and caterwauling synths. Everything’s just as sprawling here, with big harmonies and myriad tempo changes, but seems to traverse less territory than the distinctly catchier first half.
Oracular Spectacular has its moments, to be sure, as well as a boundless, sparkling supply of energy. Still, for a piece of work that tries to evoke the vividness of memories, an emotion as layered and rich as nostalgia, this feels a little too empty.