MGMT, by MGMT, Columbia
Something’s always looming and buzzing — or burbling, or clattering, or tapping, or ratcheting, or blipping, or quavering — near the foreground throughout MGMT’s third album, MGMT. It makes the album both testing and, eventually, rewarding.
Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, who write and record as MGMT, have embraced excess since MGMT’s 2007 debut album, Oracular Spectacular. Their lyrics are ornately elusive, their arrangements deploy a neopsychedelic profusion of instruments, and many of their songs pack in multiple episodes. MGMT trimmed back those tendencies enough to start their major-label career with three singles from Oracular Spectacular that pushed forward drumbeats and keyboard hooks to hint at 1970s pop in Time to Pretend, Electric Feel and the 2-million-selling Kids. But MGMT’s second album, Congratulations in 2010, spurned pop mechanics, reaching back to the most baroque confections of 1960s pop, yielding no hits.
Behind the disco-ball gleam of Oracular was a fascination with youthful bravado and disillusionment; the labyrinthine songs of Congratulations grappled — and quarreled — with commercial success. On MGMT, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser have even larger ambitions. They ponder purpose, fate and mortality in songs like Mystery Disease and Your Life Is a Lie. In I Love You Too, Death, VanWyngarden sings, “I’ve come to terms with what I have.”
The album’s keynote is borrowed: Introspection, a folk-rock song from a 1968 album by a Long Island songwriter who called himself Faine Jade. It vows, “There’s a reason, and I will someday find the plan.” MGMT is less optimistic; its songs see growing malaise and the inevitability of loss and deterioration.
Which explains the sound. There’s still a late-1960s foundation to most songs, while MGMT makes fewer digressions from verse-chorus-bridge than on Congratulations. But the music has turned less antiquarian. With the producer Dave Fridmann, MGMT has piled on layers and loops of percussion, electronics and effects: an almost overwhelming welter of activity, a meticulous clamor that wells up and changes throughout every track. It’s the entropy that, sooner or later, awaits us all.
— JON PARELES
OFF THE BEATEN PATH, by Justin Moore, The Valory Music Co
Stand at attention for the recitation of names of our new country music heroes. “You’re a little bit of J-Lo, a little bit of Kim Kardashian,” Justin Moore sings on I’d Want It to Be Yours, which extols the virtues of what Trace Adkins called the “honky tonk badonkadonk.” Moore, too, is inspired by what bubbles out of Daisy Dukes shorts: “Looks like two little pigs in a tow sack/I’m telling you right now, baby, you got back.”
So Moore is a bad boy? Someone who not only has brought the genre low, but who wants to poison it with pop culture and hip-hop references?
He is far more wily than that. Off the Beaten Path is his third strong album, each of which engage in a bait and switch: cloaking old-school values with new-school references. He is in no way a dissenter, merely someone who understands that old forms can stand even stronger with injections of new ideas.
Without the vintage quaver in Moore’s voice — on For Some Ol’ Redneck Reason, his twang lands like a generous pour of whiskey — or the thickness of the guitars in his arrangements, these songs would have other meanings. But Moore is solid in his convictions: that country music of the 1970s is worth preserving, and that the true modern spirit of that sound is mindful of the rest of the world.
He’s also capable of nonideological beauty: Old Habits, a duet with Miranda Lambert with echoes of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, or That’s How I Know You Love Me, about the taming of a difficult man written with elegance and complexity by Justin Weaver, Rodney Clawson and Chris Tompkins. And he’s capable of playing it safe, too, with This Kind of Town or Country Radio, which embrace old tropes without improving them.
“I don’t care what you listen to, how you wear your hair, you can paint it blue/Hey, it takes all kinds,” Moore sings on the album’s opener, Old Back in the New School. But really Moore wants it the other way around, for the new to season the old. “I don’t mind some attitude, a rebel heart/Hell, I got one too,” he adds, “but you still gotta walk the line.”
— JON CARAMANICA
PUSHING THE WORLD AWAY, by Kenny Garrett, Mack Avenue
Focus has never seemed like a problem for the alto and soprano saxophonist Kenny Garrett, who at 52 still possesses the taut, molten sound that made him a force nearly 30 years ago. But the title of his new album, Pushing the World Away, is meant to suggest a respite from daily distractions. Judging by the clarity and intensity of the results, Garrett had to do a lot of pushing.
His chosen path as a bandleader builds on the mid-’60s terrain of the John Coltrane Quartet — flagrantly, ingeniously — and there’s a typical amount of slashing polyrhythm and modal expedition here. Which might be a problem if Garrett’s current band, with the pianist Vernell Brown, the bassist Corcoran Holt, the drummer McClenty Hunter and the percussionist Rudy Bird, didn’t do this sort of thing imposingly well. So too do the colleagues who sub in for parts of the album, like the pianist Benito Gonzalez and the drummer Marcus Baylor.
As a composer Garrett is often quick to show his hand. Hey, Chick, a tune with an Iberian flavor, is his nod to Chick Corea, a longtime collaborator; the next track is Chucho’s Mambo, a tribute to the pianist Chucho Valdes. There’s also a springy calypso, J’ouvert (Homage to Sonny Rollins); and a churchly ballad with strings, Brother Brown, for the pianist Donald Brown, who helped produce the album.
Working in that capacity, Brown should have talked Garrett out of a smooth-jazz cover of I Say a Little Prayer. Maybe it’s meant as a palate cleanser before the title track, an odd-metered incantation so literal-minded that it incorporates actual chanting.
— NATE CHINEN