The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: May, 2013

Daft Punk: Random Access Memories

Daft Punk Cover

Written by Mr. Harold Zo

I have to confess that I stole this manuscript off of Alexius’ desk. I told him that there was a wasp behind his back. He had just been at some allergy seminar for cats, and was paranoid about insects of all kinds. This I knew, and used to great effect. He turned his back and I snatched this right up, rushing out of there before he could pounce. I confess I may have slammed the door on his paws. I do not regret this, because only an aging rock star in league with the devil is qualified to pass judgment on an album so invested in performing unironic nostalgia for the 1970s. I lived through those times, those trends, and those troubles, and what does some simpleton cat know about that?

***

I went through my first burst of musical obsession, like many of us do, in my late teens. Feeling oppressed by an unknown but potent Man and undergoing my own pupal stage of adolescence, I was attracted to music that allowed me to ignore this awkward body, thank you much. Progressive rock became a constant companion, or as constant as it could be in an age before portable music players and relatively cheap audio equipment. Remembering it now, I can see that the bedazzlement I felt for instrumental prowess and high-culture allusions was more than a little aspirational. I had a mind to study literature and music theory, to remake myself into the next Jon/Ian Anderson or Robert Fripp or Greg Lake.

From what I can gather, the title of the album has a kind of codebreaker built into it. For those baffled by Random Access Memories’ menagerie of guest appearances, musical references, and elaborate, sometimes operatic disco, I would pay attention to the third word in the title. This is an album of musical memories, of pre-made past experiences. Working with my band on our own last album, we began to use sampling and digital manipulation techniques to a much greater extent that we had before, and I began to realize something: while the technique of sampling is certainly a forward-looking (perhaps not so much anymore) and technically-advanced one, it is on the flip side inherently backward-looking. It is taking what already exists and remaking it. All music builds on traditions and preexisting influences, but sampling reminds you of that in a more direct way.

Daft Punk’s members might wear robotic suits, which point toward the future. However, their specific aesthetics remind one of earlier visions of the future. The group’s ambition on RAM is, therefore, not innovation but revivalism. Consider that the opening song is a clarion call to “Bring Life Back to Music.” Even with the trademark robotic voices, the song still sounds sincere, even tender. Recalling Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson, it serves as a memorialization and revitalization (paradoxical but true) of a more organic time in music. The duo’s decision to use mostly organic instrumentation on the album is indicative of their approach this time around. While some songs are classic retro-infused dance material, like hit single “Get Lucky” and another collaboration with Pharrell Williams, “Lose Yourself to Dance,” many of the songs are more showcases for an eclectic, sometimes grandiose evocation of the 1970s.

One such example is the Paul Williams collaboration “Touch,” which directly references  my favourite film–Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise–to cement the album’s 70s credentials. It’s also Daft Punk’s favourite film, and it somewhat mirrors the appeal of this French disco-electronic dance robot duo. “Touch,” itself, is an expansive song, running through eight minutes of sweeping strings, glistening synthesizers, and unabashedly schmaltzy singing from Paul Williams. There’s even a children’s choir. All of this could be incredibly annoying and incoherent if it weren’t so cohesive. Random Access Memories recaptures our popular-culture-tinted memories of the 1970s so well that its fantastical nostalgia seems earned rather than a cheap trick to pull our heartstrings.

In a world of sampling, everything is fair game, whether that be intellectualized cult camp like Phantom or the electrifying grooves of late 70s disco. Or the slightly less invigorating sounds of soft rock from the same era. What matters to Random Access Memories isn’t the coolness or respectability of what it is sampling and reviving but their authenticity, using these signifiers to push us back to life and better times. It’s a grand architectural attempt to bring the spirit of the 70s, the most fertile time for grand albums statements like this one, into the present. Luckily a Frankenstein’s monster is not the result. That makes it, oddly, rather optimistic and forward-looking. By returning to a more hopeful period of the past, it is able to revivify the progressive outlook of that decade’s music as well, and make it its own.

NEXT Collective: Cover Art–Jazz and Pop’s Fertility Rites

I’d posit it has to do with its reputation, deserved or not, of being a thinking person’s music.  It wasn’t always that way, but that reputation has evolved over time to where we are now.  Generally speaking, and with plenty of exceptions, there exists a segment of the population who might be interested in exploring Jazz were it not for the perceived barrier-to-entry of getting learned up on the subject.  As opposed to, say, rock or hip hop or pop music, where one just hears a couple bands on the radio or a friend’s house and dives into the music, Jazz is viewed, by some, as having some sort of education requirement to be able to sufficiently appreciate the music, that it’s not enough to simply like a tune… one must understand why they like a jazz song and learn to like it the correct way.

Dave Sumner at Bird is the Worm

Being a non-human in a world of human hegemony is hard enough. Loving jazz–that only compounds the isolation. Tigers are as a rule not inclined to martyrdom, but sometimes I wish I could show people–in the manner of soldiers and drunken hitmen–my thick and gnarly scars. These scars were all won, not in battles waged with bullets or switchblades but with words. These were the Jazz Wars. Lest the reader get a vision of violent saxophone-based bludgeoning on his or her mind, let me assure you that they concerned nothing more [or less] important than trying to get people to talk with me about jazz.

Dave Sumner has it precisely right. Those who don’t know jazz–and, unfortunately, some who are “serious” about jazz and not serious/playful–make all kinds of statements like the one above. Proper appreciation of jazz, they state, either to deprecate or arrogate themselves (two sides of the same narcissistic coin) requires erudition, class, and sophistication. And when I invoke class it is not only in a taste sense but is also very economic. Jazz, in the minds of a majority of people, is rich white people music, like classical music. Statistically speaking, they might be correct. To argue that jazz is somehow essentially impenetrable without the aid of a master’s degree in music theory and a pipe-tobacco-stained collection of history books, however, is completely off base. Jazz was born as dance music and, though  it has become more diverse, enriched by its globalism, open approach to hybridization, and essentially renewable nature, it is not impregnable.

Those looking to refute me will point to the avant-garde, especially genre-bending artists like John Zorn and free jazz “screechers” like Evan Parker and Anthony Braxton. Let me first say that John Zorn’s recent Christmas album is about as challenging as petting a kitten, yet loses nothing of his usual playful artistry. Second, I will point out that the avant garde is not representative of jazz today any more than post-metal or Zeuhl is of contemporary rock music. All genres have their fringes and their centres, and in jazz’s case both are still electrically alive and kicking today.

And then there is NEXT Collective. If you have the time, I encourage you to read this interview with the band, which includes some comments from the musicians involved summarizing some of the points I am about to make. NEXT Collective is a project from Concord Music Group, an attempt to demonstrate the talents and chemistry of their youthful and ambitious roster of musicians. Many of them, including drummer Jamire Williams and guitarist Matthew Stevens, worked with star trumpeter Christian Scott (who provides some stellar playing on two of the songs here) on my favorite album of last year, Christian aTunde Adjuah. The entire group bring the same dynamism and rigor to their first record, Cover Art, which, as its title implies, is a collection of cover songs.

While rock music has long enshrined an almost ethical importance to writing all of your own material, jazz has a different relationship to the cover song. Being a musical approach that incorporates improvisation, jazz has, since its inception, embraced a symbiotic relationship to the folk and pop traditions of the times. From the blues and classical to rock to hip hop and R&B, jazz musicians often appropriate existing songs and infuse them with jazz’s peculiar rhythmic and technical aspects. Cover Art, an entire album of covers, is a perfect example of this tendency. Taking a group of musicians who want to uphold the strong traditions of their own genre but who have grown up listening to a vast range of popular music encompassing all the streams I mentioned earlier, I see it as an attempt, conscious or not, to reinvigorate jazz through the appropriation of popular songs that appeal to a more youthful set of musicians and audiences.

While the NEXT Collective usually sticks to relatively straight-ahead jazz forms for their covers, they also take care to respect some of the spirit of the original songs. “No Church in the Wild” maintains its vaguely sinister rhythmic pulse, abetted by Christian Scott’s impassioned yet hushed trumpeting. A cover of Bon Iver’s “Perth” employs Matthew Stevens’ guitar to at first imitate and then greatly expand on the appealing opening guitar riff. Beats that recall rock and slow-jam R&B appear on a few songs, with Jamire Williams and bassist Ben Williams nimbly taking the song’s rhythmic cores and making them both wilder and more beautiful. Though the approach to the songs is relatively conventional, the band is working with relatively unconventional material, and as such Cover Art is a promising first release for the band, showing its dexterity and intellect as well as a certain urgency to interpret music for a new generation.

In many ways, jazz depends both on engaging pop music and talented musicians who are engaged by it. Like hip hop, jazz is a collage music, albeit one where the lines between a sampled or appropriated riff and an improvised extrapolation are far blurrier. While many people worry that jazz has grown too insular and inaccessible, with the result being dwindling audiences and popular enthusiasm, I would argue that this music, with its global reach and ongoing creative renaissance, has become in many ways an ideal reflection of the world of music in 2013. Fragmented, culturally cosmopolitan, and, I insist, quite accessible as long as one tries to ignore the pressure to “get it” the same way your annoying jazz friend (e.g. me) does. Projects like Cover Art show that musicians certainly haven’t given up on jazz; I see no reason why this tiger should.

Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City

See more on Vampire Weekend here.

The album cover is a study in surface. Misty, grainy, choked with dust and grime. It has an aged, decaying quality, but also a vast scope  that speaks to the music inside. Telltale Futura letters let you know that this record fits right alongside Contra and the self-titled debut, but its greyscale color scheme lends it an air of sadness and finality, of slow marches rather than the bursts of surprise we saw on Contra. 

***

Modern Vampires of the City is the best of the three Vampire Weekend albums. I came to that conclusion after a few listens. What interested me about this record, then, is less its specific qualities than my own reaction. Questioning whether something is good or not, this tiger has come to realize, often yields less fertile answers than moving one step further and asking why I, at this singular moment, enjoyed this work. Does the work comfortably fit within my preexisting tastes or does it stretch the boundaries? Do I enjoy this album because of its situation within a certain genre or the way it bends the parameters of its own categories? Is this affection going to last and grow over time or will it fade?

Tigers enjoy a certain energetic spark in their music, or so the scientists have said. I can certainly understand where my love for Contra and Vampire Weekend originated. I had already grown into loving Paul Simon’s Graceland both for its chronological context and its appealing production style. Much like Paul Simon’s much beloved album, Modern Vampires was constructed as a studio creation over the course of an extended gestation period. That contributes to two of its most endearing qualities: its precision and its allusiveness. Every song is a pristine example of song-craft. The album as a whole is strikingly well-sequenced, keeping itself moving at a deliberate (not necessarily slow) pace without burning out or subsiding into molasses. Notice how the baroque and stately “Step” slides into “Diane Young,” whose meaning and sonic atmosphere are perfectly captured by its accompanying video, burning Saab included. Songs fit well into their places, and the band’s attention to detail has allowed it to string them together with appropriate transitions. Its precision marks it out as an full record, pleasurably able to be listened to in one gulp, which is the integrity part of the equation.

Those two advantages are not new to Vampire Weekend. Lead singer Ezra Koenig has labeled these first three LPs a “trilogy” in interviews, and so it seem natural that the three should share more qualities than not. Rather than seeing the relative darkness and introspection of Modern Vampires as a complete departure, alien elements to the band’s normal expression, it is more useful to frame them as emerging. These are companions rather than adversaries. Placed alongside one another, one can make all sorts of playful arrangements. Put in chronological order, the three albums sketch, in greater and greater detail, a youthful band obsessed with youth, a cosmopolitan and well-educated team of musicians reflecting on a peculiar set of issues. I don’t see Modern Vampires as “deeper” or “more serious” in comparison, since to write that would be to consign its predecessors, relatively, to “surface” or “more frivolous.” Vampire Weekend is and has always been a serious/playful group, obliquely political, concerned with identities and conflicts, with grammar and God.

Writing on God, it is strange that the band’s rather sharp turn to more spiritual subject matter, which is a meaningful difference between Modern Vampires and the other two, has gone mostly unremarked in the music press. Such concerns are part and parcel with the band’s previous musings on how difference affects people (think “Oxford Comma” and “California English”), and new songs like “Ya Hey” are still marked with the band’s trademark tendency toward wordplay and reference. Still, there remains a key shift in perspective here; there is an explicit character to these songs that distinguish them. Bubbly, upbeat “Unbelievers” takes a classic pop approach to religion: conflate it with love. It’s not merely an agnostic “Jesus/God is my boyfriend/girlfriend” number, but it certainly employs a bit of double entendre to get its message across.

“Ya Hey,” while its title is an inversion of an Outkast song title, is a much more straightforwardly spiritual song. Asking God rather quizzically why a supreme being would love all people (a natural question considering the existence of superior felines), the song shimmers with ornate choir parts while also warping Ezra Koenig’s voice with pitch shifting. Throughout the album, there is a spectral reggae presence lurking around. In this case, it comes in references to Babylon and Zion, some of the bass work, and Koenig’s voice (with and without pitch shifting).

“Hudson” also depends on some clever bits of wordplay, but it is without a doubt the most dour Vampire Weekend song to meet the public ear. Riddled with political references and driven by a string-lashed militaristic beat and ticking clocks, the song is almost revelatory. If there is any clear sign of a clean stylistic break from “old” Vampire Weekend, it can be found here. It’s effective, feeling every bit like an appropriate conclusion to an eclectic and inspired album.

My love of Modern Vampires of the City, then, probably originates first in my admiration for and proclivity toward immaculate studio albums that still manage to excite. More personally (or tigerly) it also speaks to some close-to-the-head spiritual concerns that have been dogging me since my exit from hell. It arrived at the right time and in the right form. To take this article broader for a moment, I want to offer a word on its place in the current “indie” landscape.

No one who laments the fact that indie rock “doesn’t rock” is going to love this album, or if they do it will be in spite of themselves. I would be hesitant to characterize this in any was as a rock album. It certainly contains rock songs–“Diane Young” and “Worship You” fit nicely into a rock mold–but, just like the hip hop samples don’t make “Step” a hip hop song, these songs don’t shift the album decisively toward rock. What we have is beautiful pop music, rhythmically intriguing and decidedly academic in its approach. It is almost certain to top the charts at month’s end, and further solidify this band’s place near the top of the indie “rock” A-list. It illustrates better than most records the peculiar effect that happens when college graduates form rock bands. Literate, sophisticated, and perfectly redolent of its cosmopolitan city of origin, Modern Vampires of the City is both an encapsulation of the anxieties of its time and, less certainly, a herald for more of this kind of album.

Upstream Color

Trickling throughout director Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, binding and permeating all of the dreamlike montages, intensely sensual imagery, and dislocated moments, is water. Water brings life, incites desire, slicks the streets with ghostly reflections, carries strange toxins. The water cycle, one of the most seemingly mundane and regular natural occurrences on this blue planet, forms a kind of gate or ring through which the film’s plot passes. To attempt to describe that plot would be to tempt the reader to ignore this falsely sage tiger’s advice: seek out and see this film; Shane Carruth has–to use a flagrantly convenient metaphor–bloomed into an original and intellectual filmmaker.

This much could have been guessed after seeing his first film, Primer, but that film’s execution on a tiny budget and according to a rigorous plan, only proved that Carruth was a master of logistics and steel-trap precise plotting. He was also a promising acting presence. But I, for one, blame my feline instincts for failing to detect what signs, if any, there were that Carruth was more than the sum of his left-brained fascination with complex physics conundrums. Seeing Primer through this new film, I have assumed a new appreciation for that earlier work’s achievements in creating compelling characters and conflicts, dealing with issues about the body and identity that are explored in newly vital ways with Upstream Color.

This plot similarly focuses around two characters and their doubles. It also has a similar fascination with the interaction between scientific and technological ingenuity and its darker side. Amy Seimetz and Shane Carruth play the two leads, each of whom has gone through a traumatic change in his or her life. They have been torn from their relatively successful lives and previous narratives, forced to reckon not only with missing memories but also with long-term psychological and physical traces that they attempt to understand. Each is played with appropriately low-key sensitivity, as is their primary antagonist, and with the help of Carruth’s camera and astute scriptwriting and editing, helps us to understand their trials as well.

This is far from a conventional film in terms of technique, though some easy comparisons can and have been drawn in the critical discourse about the film, including Terrence Malick and Krzysztof Kieślowski, the latter of whose Three Colors trilogy seems to be a creative touchstone for Carruth. Sounds wash over cuts and edits, scenes play out multiple times with different results, and the entire screen sometimes washes out into abstract images that, despite their cryptic nature, are key to understanding the story. The entire affair was shot on digital video, and there are few “films” that make better arguments for the vitality and usefulness of this format when in capable hands.

It could be argued that this film aims for–and, I would argue, hits–notes that are too high or too precise and unconventional for most to appreciate. I hope that is not the case. This film is one that you should enter with a mind to be changed, to have your mind and body contorted and challenged. Its rewards are many, and its intelligent, and–lest I fail to emphasize it enough–incarnational probes into the nature of human minds and memories deserve to be shared further.

Editor’s Note: Break

I will be taking this week off from blogging on Wednesday and Friday because the semester just ended. Look for more stuff after that.

End of Year Reflections: The Gaudy Fullness of Liturgy, Or Christian Time Travel

In this post, this tiger will attempt to push the conversation started before MGMT week. What does discernment point to? What is the best way for a person, even a feline person, to fracture what Calvin calls “discernment” and emerge from the rubble to engage in what I have tentatively named “stalking?” This will take the form of a reflection on my one and, it turned out, only year as a cultural discerner. This post will be taking up the art form known as liturgy and, in a brief sketch, attempt to convey the source of my discomfort with its use in our cultural discerner meetings.

For those who need a refresher on what “discernment” means, a former cultural discerner and close friend of mine defined it thus:

“Discernment is a posture of paying attention and listening carefully to what we consume. It’s an attempt to train ourselves to become more meditative and mindful about how our culture experiences shape us. Therefore discernment involves an active response rather than passive consumption. One response, for many, is criticism. Criticism helps us evaluate and ground the work in its cultural context. But responses could vary from reflection to creation of new work. So discernment is a spiritual practice (akin to meditation) that helps us become better, more mindful consumers of culture.”

As nutshells go, that is an attractive and relatively helpful one, and it comes from someone much more sympathetic to the work of discernment than I. Therefore, I believe it will work to my advantage to play on this definition for the following few posts. I will take this nutshell and do my best to work within it so that, by the time I am done, I will not recognize what I am doing as discernment. I will break the shell and attempt to re-encapsulate my thought in terms of “culture stalking,” which, I admit, is an impoverished term, not empty of meaning since its two words have their own denotative and connotative values, but as a pair they represent no tradition with which I am familiar. Let us begin by writing on the last sentence of my friend’s description:

“Discernment is a spiritual practice (akin to meditation) that helps us become better, more mindful consumers of culture.”

Spiritual practice is a Christian term, and it generally refers to concrete activities in which people of the church participate in order to strengthen or deepen their faith. If we are willing (and for now, we are) to define discernment under this taxonomy, we can put it alongside prayer, meditation, Scripture reading, and other more classic and well-known examples of Christian “spiritual practices.” The problem facing the project of cultural discernment in an age dominated by popular and mass/niche culture is that the church tradition in which the college is rooted used to be the antithesis of culture-friendly. Cinema was frowned upon in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) only two generations ago, and for most of its history the denomination has done its best to cultivate a practice of denying entry to profane or secular culture. Lingering elements of this resistance continue to persist in the CRC and in Calvin College itself, as demonstrated by the absurd furore over the New Pornographers show a few years ago (their name was what was controversial) and the more minor but equally ridiculous controversy over Fun. earlier in this school year.

I believe that it is because it must respond to such critiques, fundamentally pietistic and separatist and conservative ones, that  liturgical practices became routine at cultural discerner meetings. Remember, because what cultural discerners are doing is basically criticism with a sacred sheen draped over it, there is a fascinating antagonism between appearance and reality.

Every week during cultural discerner meetings, we (I was present in the form of a costume worn by my editor) would read from Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. It normally consisted of a communal reading of an evening prayer, the content of which can be seen here. An explanation I was accustomed to receiving when asking about this practice would be that it helped form a community among us and help orient the group toward a more Christ-centred attitude in the meeting. I also think that it has a lot to do with image and posturing, helping us “sacralize” the meeting in order to defend against implicit accusations that we were dabbling in the devil’s work. See? Look at us! We’re praying. Indeed, liturgical readings as I understand them are mainly aesthetic experience, intended to provoke the imagination. As Calvin professor James K.A. Smith writes,

The Gaudy Fullness of Liturgy: Or, Christian Time Travel

“Liturgies are formative because they are both kinaesthetic and poetic, both embodied and storied. Liturgies are covert incubators of the imagination because they play the strings of our aesthetic hearts. Liturgies traffic in the dynamics of metaphor and narrative and drama as performed pictures of the good life, staged performances of some vision of the kingdom that capture our imagination and thus orient our love and longing. By an aesthetic alchemy, these liturgies implant in us a vision for a world and way of life that attracts us so that, on some unconscious level, Liz Lemon-like, we say to ourselves: ‘I want to go to there.’ And we act accordingly.”

One of the virtues of discernment we are supposed to recognize is that it is primarily this-worldly, that it is an active “kinaesthetic and poetic” work, intended to break the hold of a kind of culturally-enforced passivity. It is, in theory, an anti-consumeristic discipline insofar as it criticizes a posture of unguarded consumption. The way I see it, discernment at its best is essentially criticism: entering into a received text and using it to productive means, and to do that one usually has to take work apart and try to understand one’s reaction to it. What are the elements in a work that provoke certain responses? Are those responses earned or forced? Is the work telling the truth (which most people practicing discernment at Calvin would capitalize as “Truth” or maybe even “TRUTH”) or is it perpetuating an unhelpful illusion?

(Aside: I would say unhelpful illusion since even truth, as it can be articulated in language, is in some sense illusory, in that it is not what it seems and is always broken open to re-reading if we are paying close enough attention. The best illusions are ones the good ones, the ones that push us closer to reality, that snap us out of our more confining and dominating delusions.)

Here is one section of the evening prayer we usually invoked:

O gracious Light,
pure brightness of the ever living Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the evening light,
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of life,
your glory fills the whole world.

There is an essential problem with even lovely texts like this one. The problem is what I have described in the title as a gaudy fullness. Every word of it is a hyperbolic exaltation of the Light, the Triune Godhead. Let us understand what is happening as we recite words like these: we are engaged in a communal reading of an advertisement. Call it propaganda, if you prefer. What is set forth with such words is a comforting illusion. Despite the earlier use of Jeremiah’s request to be “rebuked” by God, we are gathered, through reading, in an expectation of victory and triumph. Our side cannot lose if it is arrayed in alliance with the one whose “glory fills the whole world.” It is, in effect, a denial of the current time. Instead of operating within history, we, in our liturgical time machine, have jumped through Metanarrative Space into a pristine union with the Holy Church, Bride of Christ, victorious forces of God Almighty. It is a place with a sickly kind of excess. We are, even as we begin our work to try to be more intensely in the world, drawing ourselves out of it and into a realm not of critical reflection on our faith, our culture, but rather affirming its pillars, imagining ourselves bathed in a golden radiance of which we are unworthy. The descriptions, if they were directed at a product other than God, would seem hilariously out of place. In a way, we are attempting to enter into these words and reanimate their deadness rather than acting from our own place in the tradition and allowing ourselves to be receptive to new possibilities. These words give us idols to cling to in our journey through the tumult of the meeting to come.

We have, in effect, been drawn into an unhelpful illusion, of the very sort we are meant to criticize and even curse in our work as discerners. At the start of our meeting, we have already assumed too much, closed in our circles, and fortified ourselves. Our confessions, words of praise, and songs are like penance paid in advance. We are wandering in the world, Lord, so, before we go off, let’s have a sprinkling of Spirit. What we need is an active response, not passive consumption. What needs to happen, if we are to guild our meetings with liturgical gowns, is to take these liturgies, indeed our entire assumed foundations, and work within them to open them up. Unfortunately, openness is precisely the opposite of the Reformed way, the way that cleaves desperately to foundations and, in many ways, including this latter-day rediscovery of high church liturgies and formalized prayer, vigorously defends its monopoly on correct view.

My own tigerly inclinations run with Anabaptists and Quakers, who eschew all outward identifiers: no crosses, no liturgies, no formal structures save for the dialogue of community itself. Rather than dictate, as these formal prayers do, the order and content of our encounter together, we should have a radical openness that, if it must be “spiritual,” at least embraces a plural voice, a new statement, one rooted in the old but more open to breaking out and invoking a new possibility. I refuse to be a mere mouthpiece, a marionette, for some other community’s prayers. If I must have old words, and there are many times when I must, I have to be able to reshape and recontextualize them, to engage their plasticity and inner tension. Narratives as presented in Common Prayer Liturgies are reassuring and affirmative of our own holiness as well as the rightness of our cause. This is not the attitude we learned in attempting to understand discernment.

Editor’s Note: Calvin College MGMT Concert

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Before we begin, I would like to thank Mr. Harold Zo for his readable and rigorous articles on MGMT last week. We have all benefited from his wisdom, and I am sure that he will contribute work of similarly high calibre in the future, whatever Alexius’ objections might be. I hope that all of you readers were similarly edified by his writing, which can be accessed through this very website.

I will be giving MGMT a rest after this article, though there is word of a new record coming from them in June. I am sure that my audience will not mind a review of that album if I can convince Alexius to write it. Those who have been reading this blog from the beginning will remember my reflection on the stimulating, somewhat controversial show Fun. played at Calvin. Because the context for this concert is different, lacking any political controversy as a discursive spark, I will refrain from pontificating on social issues and instead focus squarely on the event itself. I will, however, be making some passing comparisons to the Fun. show, since it is the only other arena-scale performance I have witnessed at Calvin.

MGMT’s 90-minute set was preceded by a brief dose of almost painfully straight-ahead classic rock courtesy Kuroma. Composed of members of the main attraction’s backing band, the opening act channeled back-to-basics rock with a lyrical emphasis on youth and young adulthood and a no-frills approach to instrumentation. Other than a few synth blasts meant to fill out volume, their set was a strict guitar-drums-bass affair, employing basic chords and a few short solos here and there. It was, because of my position in the audience and the imprecise sound mixing, difficult to hear the lead singer’s vocals, though I could pick up his peculiar singing style. Indeed, the singer’s scratchy high voice was one of the only distinctive elements in the set, which was skillfully performed but mostly unmemorable. Their use of the video screen and lighting mostly consisted of simple flashes and a visual display of their Stars-and-Stripes logo.

Kuroma was in many ways a wonderful compliment and appetizer for MGMT, which, as Mr. Harold Zo wonderfully explained, has a skewed relationship to 1960s psychedelia. The crowd ignited when Messieurs Vanwyngarden and Goldwasser mounted the stage, and they were to keep that energy level all throughout the performance. This was particularly noticeable in the almost absurd amount of crowdsurfing going on. At one point, I counted six or seven people being held aloft and transported, assembly-line-style, toward the security staff at the front, who were kept busy with the raucous floor crowd. Being a more demure and reserved type, I stuck to the bleachers, which were, if uncomfortable, free of the seething, claustrophobic mass on the floor.

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MGMT started their set with “Weekend Wars,” and eventually got around to playing a few of their hit singles, including “The Youth” and “Electric Feel.” That song was not part of the set, and thankfully the crowd kept their chanting for it to a minimum. When the hits were playing, the floor was choked with bodies, dancing and celebrating. There was even a scattered remnant holding up actual lighters! This in contrast to the press box I was sitting in, where nine out of the ten closest people to me saw much of the show on their phone screens.

And, truly, it was a sight to behold. Though their lighting setup was nowhere near as polished or intricate as Fun.’s, the band’s trademarked fanged and fearsome visuals were on full display, projected on a huge video screen hanging behind the band. Each song had its own distinct accompanying visuals. These varied considerably, from squiggly, migrating green lines reminiscent of old screen savers to violently distorted videos of jellyfish and freight trains to the sexually suggestive, pulsating phantasms of “Electric Feel.” Particularly striking were the visuals played behind new single “Alien Days,” which can be best described by pointing you to the official lyrics video, which has a similar visual scheme. Windswept tundras dominated “Siberian Breaks,” and helped make that song a special highlight.

Another intriguing visual device (gimmick sounds too harsh) the band employed involved the use of Microsoft Kinect hardware. By setting up a few of these devices near band members, the Kinects recorded and streamed heavily distorted images of the performers on the screen in real time. Often, these streams were integrated into the already-claustrophobic and psychedelic videos, giving the show a sense of visual overload.

The assault-on-the-senses aesthetic extended to the music as well. Every song filled the room with sound, even comparatively docile tracks like “I Found a Whistle.” By the time the band reached that song’s triumphant coda, the sound was almost deafening. MGMT’s songs are rarely sedate even when their tempos are languid, and the show emphasized that this was a band on the offensive. While not exhibiting much in terms of bodily movement, befitting, perhaps, their ironic stance toward pop music performance, the band attacked their songs. Some songs certainly benefitted from this approach. “Alien Days,” “Introspection,” and “Mystery Disease,” all songs from their prospective third album, sounded excellent, and “Time to Pretend” was almost heartbreaking (in a commendable way) for a sensitive young soul like me. As mentioned before, the expansive “Siberian Breaks” suite was a highlight, mostly for the visuals and the impeccably executed transitions.

Unfortunately, MGMT’s technique of sheathing vocals in airy effects tended to make some of the louder songs’ lyrics unintelligible. That wasn’t a concern for me, since I had memorized the songs before the show, but it didn’t help the new songs make a good first impression. My location to the side of the stage probably did not help.

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I always find it gratifying to experience a show alongside a devoted and passionate audience, and this was probably the best crowd I’ve ever seen at Calvin in that regard. Respectable quiet was not an option: this was a group that wanted to party, glow-sticks and mind-altering substances included. Estimations from the college staff are that about 3% of the audience, or about 50 to 60 souls, were smoking marijuana. That’s an almost surprisingly low number, though the smell could still be potent where I was standing. Standing in line and looking out over the floor, I could see a healthy portion of the crowd dressed in exotic, summery regalia, with many decked out in gaudy Hawaiian shirts, plastic sunglasses, and zebra-stripe leggings, along with a few pieces of glow-in-the-dark headgear. Sadly, I was rocking nothing more than my standard hat-shirt-jeans ensemble, though I was accompanied by my slightly peppier fiancée, who kept spirits high. This was a fantastic rock concert audience, expressive and more than a little off-kilter in both fashion and behavior.

Unlike Fun., MGMT was not here on an explicit mission. The lack of extensive discussion around a “hot” topic meant that this show had a more relaxed vibe. I would say, however, that the overall showmanship and quality of work on display here outclassed Fun. by a thin margin, perhaps more. Fun. also had a more unabashed and unironic focus on entertainment and populism that MGMT did not exhibit. Yet the presence of a greater ironic distance did not subtract from the show’s enjoyability. I would, tentatively, call this the best of Calvin’s “big name” shows this year. Hopefully, the college can continue this track record and push the envelope even further next year.

MGMT Week: Congratulations

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Written by Mr. Harold Zo

Congratulations. We’ve made it over the Wednesday hump and now commit ourselves to finishing strong. Luckily for both you and me, we have already covered some of the ways I think reviewers have tended to place too much emphasis on career narratives, as if bands inhabited a surreal reality show accentuated by smell-o-vision and created by lousy writers. This means I can end this paragraph whenever I choose and get to the real review. Now? Maybe now.

Running through all of these MGMT week posts is an examination of how MGMT relates to its influences. While these kinds of frames of reference can be restrictive, this band has put out a shockingly cohesive body of work in its short existence. Song subjects, stylistic details, and popularity all vary considerably, but Oracular Spectacular and Congratulations share important thematic fundamentals: youth and MGMT’s musical influences. Though this record is often accorded the more difficult and cryptic of the two, there is a transparency to it that makes it, for me, a more approachable object for analysis.

There is no mistaking allusive song titles like “Brian Eno,” “Lady Dada’s Nightmare,” and “Song for Dan Treacy.” Each of these songs represents a kind of dedication, a way of paying dues to MGMT’s illustrious predecessors and, in the case of “Lady Dada,” contemporaries in the pop music world. Were it not for the band’s pervasive sense of irony and humor, “Brian Eno” might count as a hymn. Take a look here:

So tired

Soul searching 

I followed the sounds to a cathedral

Imagine my surprise to find that they were produced by

Brian Eno

Having just finished with the surfing epic “Siberian Breaks” (which we’ll examine later), MGMT flies into the next song tired but jittery. Do you see what I mean about “Brian Eno” being a hymn to the former Roxy Music member and pioneer of Music for Airports? Eno lauded in no uncertain terms, associated with lofty cathedral ceilings and even the soul itself. I would argue that this represents a metaphorical statement: MGMT’s musical soul is always searching for sounds, and Brian Eno is one of the fountains in which it finds inspiration. Superficially, the song has few commonalities with the dry, studied craft of its namesake. As per the band’s normal approach, it is bursting out of itself, featuring rapid-fire drumming, a dense Wall of Sound production style, and curious left-turns as in this section:

He promised pretty worlds and all the silence I could dream of 

Brian Peter George St John Le Baptiste De La Salle Eno

From the overcharged and festive feel of the rest of the song, this part collapses into a lounge-y lament. Most of the instruments fall away and a sad voice comes in. Has the voice realized that there is no spiritual fulfillment even in the best music? I would say the voice is at least disillusioned. “Depressed or at least cynical” as the song preceding this one would have. Despite all the dedication and love, there is still doubt and even suspicion lingering in MGMT’s approach. Though we won’t dig into it in detail, this oscillation between cynicism and adoration is always present, keeping the words at a tension and keeping MGMT in a state of suspension. The music in both songs, as I have shown for “Brian Eno,” and which is equally true in “Treacy,” is dense and fractured, full of druggy atmosphere densely packed and delivered at weapons-grade purity. It would be sugary if it weren’t bitter, nostalgic if it weren’t so agitated, and futuristic if it weren’t so preoccupied with 1960s counterculture music.

One of the most enigmatic tracks on Congratulations is “Lady Dada’s Nightmare.” As the title suggests, this song represents another in a long series of sardonic looks into the black heart of the entertainment business. Starting out with saccharine strings and piano, the song veers and twists as layers build onto and melt into each other. Being an instrumental, it isn’t making explicit points about Lady Gaga, the art movement Dada, or dreams. And yet, listening as muffled screams and other found sounds writhe their way through the noise, I cannot help but wonder if its voiceless, creeping dread isn’t somehow the most honest statement on the album. I won’t pretend I could ever “figure out” its purpose, but it’s a fine sonic nightmare that, I think suggestively, leads into the explicitly satirical title song.

But before we conclude with that, let’s go to the beach. The first half of Oracular Spectacular was dominated by beat-driven, danceable songs that contributed to the popular appeal of the album among a younger set. Those songs also had the clearest messaging, being anthemic and clear. Here, however, “Siberian Breaks,” a twelve-minute song cataloguing the Wonderland escapades of a mysterious figure. In the first of several “movements,” MGMT returns to youth as a subject. Children’s voices intermix with the band’s. Sketched, half-remembered sayings from childhood emerge from the dream:

There’s no reason there’s no secrets to decode

If you can’t save it, leave it dying on the road

Wide open arms can feel so cold

So cold

Feel so cold

It’s a potent, if oblique, evocation of post-childhood disenchantment. All of life’s mysteries seem to be dispelled, we have to leave wounded animals where they lie, and eventually embraces we once welcomed begin to sour. Acoustic and electric guitars control the stage. When the children and the band finish the final “cold,” the soundscape shifts. A bass becomes prominent, and a more deadpan voice takes over:

Balance the books, the ledges, the loons

The disappointed look on the faces 

That squint at the moon 

Let’s see it with shadows enhance 

And then vote to decide who’ll advance

Silver jet plane, making a turn

Exciting the brain that expects it to crash and then burn

It’s not the life lesson I’d’ve guessed

If you’re conscious you must be depressed

Or at least cynical

I would say this speaks for itself, transitioning from a broken youth to the drudgery of adulthood. Especially note how this work with the first song, “It’s Working,” which notes that MGMT sees “the signs of aging.” Though still a young band, MGMT is cognizant of how their success and that confused chronology include aging as well as youth. The music changes yet again a few times more, mentioning  drownings, carrion, and lost souls. While certainly imposing at first, closer inspection reveals that the multi-part “Siberian Breaks” is not only the chronological heart of the album but its thematic heart as well.

The final track lets us know where we have been all this time. I would say Congratulations is a trip through the damaged psychology of a newborn rock star (word usage very deliberate there). Though it is even further from offering a satisfying resolution to the problems of stardom, I doubt that it should be expected to. Through their examination of psychedelic rock and MGMT’s other influences through a perceptive and cynical lens, its lyrics compliment the music. Even more indebted to Phil Spector and 1960s psych-rock experiments, it is nonetheless even more cohesive and relevant to the present. Rather than mixing in that psychedelia with dance-beats or much electro, surf rock guitars and acoustic folk elements slither in and out. Its production once again makes a disorganized melange out of its many layers. Listening to it can be draining or invigorating, depending on one’s mood, but at all times Congratulations merits its fearsome reputation. And it improves on Oracular in multiple ways. Bigger, more unified, and building even further on the band’s pet themes, it deserves closer attention even than I have given it. Let’s let MGMT have the last word here, a meditative passage from its sardonic “Congratulations.” I’ll shut up. (Note the commentary on rock stardom and the music-making process.)

The difference is clear

You throw it in your cauldron

Rust and veneer, dusk and dawn

Steinways and Baldwins

You start with a simple stock of all the waste

And salt to taste [I love this description of how MGMT works]

 But damn my luck and damn these friends

That keep on combing back their smiles

I save my grace with half-assed guilt

And lay down the quilt upon the lawn

Spread my arms and soak up congratulations

 

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