Friday, 23 May 2008

MGMT at The Astoria

Florence and the Machine thrive on a seething Astoria – the vocals sit somewhere between Laura Marling and Mirah and her persona is a far giddier and more excitable swirling, saccharine affair. Opening with a cover of Cold War Kids’ ‘Hospital Beds’, they play a short set including ‘Girl With 1 Eye’ and ‘Kiss With A Fist’; it’s a delight to the ears and eyes for the half hour it’s on, but it ends at the right moment. Captivating, never whimsical and with a set of lungs to rival Shirley Bassey, it’s certainly an impressive showing. Unfamiliar songs begin to blur into each other too much after a while, as the one (albeit quite lovely) trick begins to tire. All the same, the set is played out by Florence Welch with the energy of a child trying to impress – it’d just sit better in a smaller venue. For now.

MGMT, on the other hand, invoke something completely different. Their debut album 'Oracular Spectacular' is chocka with dazzling hooks; truly one of 2008’s essential albums. It’d be impossible to moniker their songs “to the point”, but they’re certainly a unified call out of hyperbolic-scale electro. Very together, always pushing forward. Live, it’s like this: the conciseness is reduced to an unstructured mess of rehearsal room jamming where the band completely forget that there’s an audience there watching them. The “set” is shorter than the “encore”, the latter being longer in time than the former and consisting of some very strange occurrences – there’s unintroduced songs that feel like they’re being played for the first time, a strange caterwauling noise sporadically making itself known and the general feeling of an overdrawn, pretentious mess of noise. And the weirdest moment yet occurs when the touring members of the band disappear from the stage and ‘Kids’ suddenly starts out of nowhere – funnily enough sounding exactly like the version on the album. It turns into just that, a backing track being played to a still up for it crowd and at the end, the drum machine being politely battered with a guitar solo laid over the top. They keep talking about wanting to “fuck around” and arguably, that’s what they do – the album track plays out with WynGarden and Goldwasser undulating on the floor somewhere. What even is this? Is no-one else wondering whether we’re part of some sort of Beadle’s About 2.0? Everything that could be augmented is, over and over – they run way over their 11pm curfew in fact. But the crowd lap it up, all the same.

Aside from the jam-type mass, ‘Electric Feel’ storms the room, as do ‘Pieces of What’ and ‘The Handshake’. But the fact that they’re sandwiched somewhere in between a 1:9 ratio of killer: filler makes the idea of them bothering with the “songs” feel like a complete waste of time. Even the song, ‘Time to Pretend’, loses its strength with the keys up too loud and the opportunity for a pre-, mid-, in between- and post-song jam wrongly seized yet again. The solos prove uninspiring, cheap and devoid of likeable quirk.

It’s certainly unlike any other live show going but it completely fails to do justice to their excellent album. Credit for having the balls to do something this bizarre but there’s still the overwhelming notion of an endurance test where the audience filters out and only the strongest win. But those who stay until the never ending song ends don’t really win, per se – all they get is a massive sense of excitement when a familiar song makes it structure known. The weirdness is too knowing live, that’s part of the crux – and the self-obsession/overdrawn jam conceit needs to be sorted out for this Brooklyn assortment to prove themselves live, unless festival season somehow manages to force them into a set with a time limit.

There are moments when the audience seem to drift off into an alternate universe only to open their eyes and realise that MGMT are still playing. But don’t let this put you off - there are many positives, like the fact they’re only on album number one (which, once again, is a fantastic record) and like, the nice dress and stuff. Shame about the indulgence, mind.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Islands - Arm's Way
Canada, home of many brilliant things: maple syrup, Spencer Krug, that almost British wryness, and, er, Conrad Black, Celine Dion and Avril Lavigne. But of course, Islands are the most relevant right now. Just over two years ago they released their debut LP, ‘Return To The Sea’ – it was full of a strangely quaint grandeur. Infectious, broadly influenced, rich, melodic and dead-on smart too. It’s not to be forgotten also that Islands formed from the ashes of The Unicorns, but it’s increasingly irrelevant now as original Unicorn/Islands co-founder Jamie Thompson (aka J’aime Tambeur) has departed. Confused much? Nah. The fact is thus: the darkness has been honed in on here to the point of no return, and the vague tweeness has been viciously disposed of in Islands’ ambitious quest towards a journeying masterpiece of a second album.

Where previous takes like ‘Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby’ held their genius in how gathered their wit was, this album is stark in comparison. It’s a larger-scale mess of noise with more strings, higher emotions than ever, and frequently epic and persisting mood swings. Opener ‘The Arm’ is dark and broody, with a stunning vocal performance – it’s far from surprising that it was written after Nick Diamonds got caught up in a thunderstorm. It’s got more menace than anything they’ve done before and sets up Arm’s Way just perfectly.

‘Abominable Snow’, on the other hand, is the band’s most tender moment yet with massive orchestration and the sense of brooding that many can only strive towards. But the fact that this is placed directly after ‘J’aime Vous Voir Quitter’ is a statement in itself – ‘Jaime…’ is Ted Leo-ish, open-sounding punk. It’s alliterative, dynamic and also kind of conga-recalling. It’s bitter and ferocious and has a lot to give - but it also contains a huge sense of grief. These two songs hit home as if two completely distinct entities within their own mindspace.

Yet his album makes up a massively coherent whole. It’s conclusive, open, abstract and pinpointing. It's everything, the whole works. And Islands have set the standard damn high for so many of their counterparts. Why? Because it’s got one underlying theme – pain. Is that all? No, it’s of course the way they attack their focus. Be it ‘Pieces Of You’, based on a series of brutal murders that occurred at Diamonds’ school, or the way the closing eleven-minute opus ‘Vertigo (If It’s A Crime)’ retreats and recoils within itself until it dies a minimal, dark death.

The one semi-weak moment is ‘Kids Don’t Know Shit’ which offers much promise with its Aztec Camera opening, but ends up feeling almost too extravagant despite the astounding vocal work contained within it. It’s more than made up for by the broad-spanning ‘We Swim’ and the refreshing jam in ‘To A Bond’. The foreboding, skeletal funk of ‘Creeper’ ain’t half brilliant too. This album’s heart is seeping blood and descending deeper and deeper into itself. It’s bold, striking and without apology – a draining symphony which requires persistence to untangle. Just hold on in there and it’ll reveal itself, all on its own.