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Congratulations Ben Hewitt , March 26th, 2010 11:39

A chorus! A chorus! My kingdom for a chorus! We thought MGMT understood that the majesty of pop is often rooted in the simplest of things. The maddeningly infectious synth riff of ‘Kids’ that left your lips permanently pursed, ready to whistle its effortless melody; the gorgeous, grimy guitar lining ‘Time To Pretend’ that swelled into the shiniest of pop hooks. These were the ingredients that made Oracular Spectacular such a delicious dish - and even if it was ostensibly a handful of tasty morsels contriving to make the surrounding filler more palatable, Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyng had that unmistakable knack for making bold and bright pop music that few other artists are blessed with.

Yet the Brooklyn-based duo seem to have fallen into the same trap that snares so many bands of similar ilk: a belief that, somehow, being a pop band isn’t good enough - that it isn’t authentic enough. A conviction that only by producing a ‘serious’ record will they receive the credibility they so obviously crave. Of course, such experimentation is not to be scoffed at - indeed, merely having the mettle to bin the formula which brought you initial success will be enough to draw praise from some quarters - and MGMT would be forgiven for their hubris if they convincingly traversed previously unexplored pastures. But Congratulations is not only devoid of the pop smashes that littered Oracular Spectacular, it also lacks any sense of groundbreaking sonic reinvention. The hazy campfire strains of ‘I Found A Whistle’, for example, attempt nothing more brazen than gingerly dipping a toe into dusty Americana. And when such forays are found wanting in radicalism, and nothing remains of the MGMT that people first fell in love with, then their unashamed pure pop brilliance has been sacrificed for little gain.

It’s this half-baked, and half-arsed, approach to experimentation that plagues Congratulations. Ideas aren’t so much finely honed and sculpted as they are mangled together. Thus, opening track ‘It’s Working’ is a tangled web of musical styles, all underpinned by a sickly vibe of surf-tinged psychedelia that’s decidedly lukewarm; it never captures the sun-drenched aesthetic it strives for. The belief that cramming as many disparate ideas as possible into one song constitutes a grandiose display of unrestrained creativity reveals itself again in the disjointed 12 minutes of ‘Siberian Breaks’. It feels like several different songs squeezed into one as it morphs from gentle acoustic strumming to woozy keyboards before culminating in scraping synthesisers. Unlike the uneasy schizophrenia that lurks underneath a track such as Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’ - an obvious comparison in its ambitions, if not its style - this is too clumsily tacked together; it meanders along devoid of direction, fails to cohere.

Elsewhere, things take an ever steeper turn downhill with the ill-advised skiffle shuffle of ‘Song For Dan Treacy’, a track so charmless and turgid it's surely destined to deter those unfamiliar with The Television Personalities from ever exploring their back catalogue. The joke of ‘Brian Eno’, with its lyrical conceit of “We’re always one step behind him / He’s Brian Eno” falls somewhat flat. While there should certainly be no such thing as a sacred cow in music, taking a pop at a figure widely revered for their success in pushing artistic boundaries is somewhat unwise when your own attempt at experimentation features such dull enterprises as ‘Lady Dada’s Nightmare’. A much more successful slice of humour - although probably unintentional - is ‘Flash Delirium’ which, as Julian Marszalek has already observed, resembles the poor companion to Flight Of The Conchords’ ‘The Prince Of Parties’. New Zealand’s fourth most popular comedy-folk duo actually had laughter in mind when they produced their effort, though - quite what Goldwasser and VanWyng intended by further polluting their distressing 60s acid vision complete with an acrid flute solo is unclear.

There’s one nagging question that seems to linger long after the handclaps which greet the closing track of Congratulations have faded away: shouldn’t we be beyond this by now? This notion that producing simple pop music makes you less worthy than your contemporary artists? When you toss away the failed experiments and ill-conceived concepts of Congratulations, what essential remains is the yellowing cadaver of Oracular Spectacular, an album drained of all its colour and choked of all its excitement. New Young Pony Club proved earlier this month that it’s possible to expand your influences without losing your pop sensibilities; it’s a shame MGMT didn’t abandon their quest for authentic credibility and adopt their blueprint instead. My kingdom for a chorus indeed.

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