MGMT – Little Dark Age

Let’s be honest, MGMT are always going to be defined by their first album. Not because it’s necessarily their best one, but because it’s the home to three huge singles that everyone knows (‘Time To Pretend’, ‘Electric Feel’ and, of course, ‘Kids’.) On the two albums that followed Oracular Spectacular, the band seemed to do everything they could to get away from the poppiness of those singles, taking things in a more challenging psychedelic direction… A move that paid off pretty nicely on 2010’s Congratulations and not so well on 2013’s MGMT.

Given this trajectory, everyone expected MGMT to go even further down the weird rabbit-hole on their fourth album… But nope, instead, we get a bit of a U-turn, with the band re-embracing the pop sound they abandoned almost ten years ago. And surprisingly, it pays off; Little Dark Age is the most accessible album the band have put out in a long time and yet doesn’t feel like a retread of their early successes. It’s creative, fun and just the right amount of strange.

Kicking the album off is ‘She Works Out Too Much’ – a break-up song that’s beautifully ridiculous. Backed by some 80s fitness video-style synths, Andrew VanWyngarden sings about a relationship that fell apart because, well, his girlfriend spent too much time working out. Again, it’s ridiculous but MGMT make it work – in part because they fully commit to the silliness of it all, even having a fitness instructor monologue exercise routines on the bridge of the song.

There are plenty of other tracks on the album that adopt a similar tone, such as ‘TSLAMP‘ or ‘Time Spent Looking At My Phone’. It’s a great little critique of modern culture (‘God descends to take me home, find me staring at my phone’) that, like ‘She Works Out Too Much’, is musically a lot of fun too. There’s also ‘When You Die’, in which VanWyngarden attempts to come across as menacing to hilarious effect. Throughout the song, he tries to assure the listener that he’s evil (telling them to go fuck themselves at one point), the lyrics contrasting with his very boyish vocals. It’s great – just great.

Some songs take a darker tone, being less outright funny, such as ‘Little Dark Age’. The synths on this track are fantastic, having a heavy gothic tinge to them. The lyrics are similarly great, though pretty cryptic. I also love the similarly dark and melancholy ‘When You’re Small’ – on which the band reflect on their own rise to fame. It’s a minimalist track – only really featuring an acoustic guitar, a piano and VanWyngarden’s echoing vocals – and that makes it all the more eerie.

Little Dark Age only falters in a couple of places and never too heavily. ‘James’ is the only song I find easy to skip in the tracklist (coming across as a little bland), with the rest being solid. Overall, it’s an excellent return to form for the band – demonstrating that they can still retain their signature weirdness while making music that’s accessible and poppy.

Best Tracks: ‘She Works Out Too Much’, ‘Little Dark Age’, ‘Me and Michael’.

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Ty Segall – Freedom’s Goblin

Much like his garage rock contemporaries Oh Sees and King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Ty Segall does not believe in taking a break. Following up 2017’s self-titled album, Freedom’s Goblin is Segall’s ninth album in ten years… And a double one at that. It’s been described by a lot of people as his White Album, a comparison that definitely fits. At 75 minutes long, it’s grand, sprawling and diverse (exploring every genre from disco to jazz), demonstrating that Ty Segall really is a master at what he does.

Unlike the White Album though, Freedom’s Goblin is a single, focused vision. Despite all the genre-hopping, it flows incredibly well; the dramatic piano ballad ‘Rain’ slips effortlessly into Segall’s heavy, fuzzy cover of Hot Chocolate’s ‘Every 1’s A Winner’, and the acoustic ballad ‘I’m Free’ feels like the perfect breather after the off-kilter freakiness of ‘The Main Pretender’. All of the songs fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and there’s only a handful that feel like they could’ve been cut. Even ‘Prison’, an instrumental track that lasts only a minute, feels important, acting as a fantastic bridge between ‘She’ and ‘Talkin’ 3’. It’s rare for a nineteen-song album to be so devoid of filler.

There are too many noteworthy tracks on Freedom’s Goblin for me to go into them all. ‘Fanny Dog’ which opens the album is bombastic and fun, with Ty singing about his pet dog over a typically fuzzy guitar and some trumpet flourishes. It’s a solid song, and there’s something undeniably sweet about him singing so dramatically about his pet.  Elsewhere, he dives into more jazzy territory with tracks like ‘Rain’ and ‘Talkin’ 3’. The former is a low-key piano ballad that builds to a big finish, while the latter is a deranged saxophone freak-out. There are also some great acoustic songs littered throughout the tracklist (the best of which being ‘My Lady’s On Fire’) as well as some which resist being pigeonholed into specific genres – like ‘Despoiler Of Cadaver’. Featuring an old-school drum machine beat, the track manages to be groovy and unsettling at the same time – a mood that the album pulls off frequently.

The album also features its fair share of great rock songs among Segall’s experimentation. ‘Alta’ is probably the most straight-forward cut on the album; it features a huge, almost anthemic chorus with a classic rock feel to it. ‘Shoot You Up’ similarly plays things straight, but has a more lighthearted and playful vibe to it. The album’s finest rock moment, though, is ‘She’ – a mostly instrumental track filled with writhing guitar solos and Segall screeching out the song’s title here and there. It’s rock in its purest form, and while there’s not a lot of substance to it that doesn’t stop from being a lot of fun. Segall knows how to put together a song that you just want to rock out to.

Though Freedom’s Goblin is consistent overall, there are a few weaker moments in the tracklist. A couple of songs do feel slightly inessential; ‘Cry Cry Cry’ and ‘You Say All The Nice Things’ in particular lean on the forgettable side. Almost every song on the album has a unique spark to it – allowing it to stand out in its own way – but these two don’t do much that isn’t done better elsewhere. In terms of the album’s softer moments, ‘My Lady’s On Fire’ and ‘I’m Free’ work a lot better for me.

But luckily, these weaker songs don’t detract from the album too much… Freedom’s Goblin is generally solid all the way through and avoids being front-loaded like many double albums are. It opens strong and it closes strong. ‘The Main Pretender’, which lands right near the end, might just be the album’s best cut – it’s fantastically weird, with some off-beat brass instrumentation, yet it also has a great sing-a-long chorus. Similarly, ‘And, Goodnight’, the album’s closer is stunning. It’s indulgent at fourteen minutes, but it feels like the perfect way to cap things off.

When a huge and sprawling album like this one is put out, it’s almost always a let-down. It’s rare for an album so long to remain engaging throughout, but somehow Ty Segall manages to pull it off. Freedom’s Goblin’s is one of the best rock albums I’ve heard in a long time and easily one of the best albums to drop this year so far.

Best Tracks: ‘Rain’, ‘My Lady’s On Fire’, ‘The Main Pretender’

Django Django – Marble Skies

After their debut album was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2012, Django Django shot into prominence abruptly. And the attention was deserved; Django Django is a great album that I still find myself revisiting from time to time. It strikes a balance between the band’s kookiness and accessibility, featuring plenty of solid songs like the incredibly catchy ‘Default’. Django Django’s sophomore effort, 2015’s Born Under Saturn, was admittedly much weaker, with even the band showing some ambivalence towards it in recent interviews. Despite a few solid tracks (‘First Light’ is still one of the best songs they’ve put out), it felt uneven and bloated at almost an hour long.

Luckily, Django Django seem to have learned from that album’s problems. Their latest release Marble Skies brushes in at just forty minutes with only ten tracks and feels tighter than anything they’ve released before. Unlike Born Under Saturn, it doesn’t feel like the band are trying to be big and showy (even the promotion in the lead-up to the album’s release felt muted) but just serve up a solid set of songs that flow together well. And I’d say they’ve succeeded at that.

Marble Skies features some of the most straight-up fun songs the band have ever put out, from the incredibly danceable ‘In Your Beat’ to the wild and jumpy ‘Tic Tac Toe’. It definitely feels like they’re trying to cut loose a bit more. The album’s title track and opener shows this best; ‘Marble Skies’ contrasts significantly with the slow openers featured on the band’s previous two albums, kicking things off with a huge burst of energy. The song barrels along through its verses, choruses and delightful vocoder-featuring bridge at a break-neck pace, never letting up. This is true with many of the album’s highlights, such as the previously mentioned ‘In Your Beat’ and ‘Tic Tac Toe’ (which even opens with David Maclean telling us to not ‘go so slow’.)

Though many of the album’s less hectic moments land just as well, such as the R&B-infused ‘Surface to Air’. Featuring guest vocals from Slow Club’s Rebecca Taylor, it definitely has a distinct feel among the band’s songs – even if the bizarre instrumentation is incredibly Django Django. It’s restrained, yet still punchy. Another highlight is ‘Real Gone’, the one track on Marble Skies that really does take its time. The song opens with a long synth-tinged instrumental intro (that sounds like the soundtrack to a long-lost ‘70s sci-fi movie) before slowly gathering momentum. It’s easily the album’s most self-indulgent moment, but the crescendo the track eventually reaches is definitely worth it.

I will admit that the album does end up sagging slightly in the middle with the country-infused ‘Further’ and piano ballad ‘Sundials’, both of which, while not bad, definitely stick out among the much stronger songs that surround them. I similarly found myself underwhelmed with ‘Fountains’, which closes out the album. It just feels too inconsequential to me – as pleasant as the song is – ending things with a shrug rather than a bang.

This isn’t an album that comes across as a grand artistic statement – like many try to be these days – and I don’t think that’s what it was intended to be. It feels like Django Django took a back-to-basics approach, focusing on crafting songs that are just plain enjoyable to listen to. And I definitely Marble Skies is all the better for it.

Best Tracks: ‘Marble Skies’, ‘Tic Tac Toe’, ‘In Your Beat’.