Live: Yeasayer and MGMT at Bowery Ballroom
Yeasayer at the Mercury Lounge in December (Chris Keating's beard phase); photo by Rebecca Smeyne
Yeasayer + MGMT
Wednesday, February 13
When Yeasayer broke last fall, I tried, for a morning, to like them and it just didn’t take. But they struck a chord with lots of folks, and the only thing I had jogging my memory before going to the Bowery last night was a quick re-listen of the record (better than I had remembered; maybe should have cared more) and, thanks to the Internet, countless pictures of mustaches. As in, the guy (or guys…I couldn’t keep track) in Yeasayer had mustaches, and this was seemingly what people found interesting? But for every Freddie Mercury, there’s probably ten-plus Eugene Hutzes ruining it for everyone, so, still, I was cautious.
It turned out that Yeasayer was nothing what I expected. With the constant flow of Kaleidoscope imagery swirling on a screen behind them, those images illustrated an overall tribal sound invoked that college “trippy” feeling. You know, when you were in college and went through that phase where things were either a) trippy or b) not trippy. Yeasayer were a) trippy.
On stage, Yeasayer has some good things and some bad things going for them. As musicians, they’re clearly technically proficient, in the way that Rush fans always describe that as one of Rush’s best qualities. I’m not saying Yeasayer=Rush, but watching them play, they know what they’re doing, in a geeky, we were in marching band, honing our skills ten years ago sort of way. Songs like “Worms” and “Sunrise” furthered fueled this belief, as they fused loud, snappy drums with mellow, snappy drum machine beats. During “Worms” the bass and guitar players, both looking like Weird Al replicas, bounce around, swaying a bit from side to side. Meanwhile, lead 'Sayer Chris Keating is kind of a spaz. He twitches around in a half circle a lot, making jerky motions with his hands and forearms; clearly, he’s immersed in what he’s doing, but, to my mind, it's annoying/uncomfortable to watch. The more slower, drawn-out tunes, well they were really slow and felt drawn out. And when you have a slow tune, there's nothing really to hone in on except . . . the bass player’s mustache.
MGMT is a different story. I actually liked their only album Oracular Spectacular, because it reminded me of the good things I enjoy about The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, and 70’s glam-rock that was influenced by Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd. But the general vibe I’ve caught is that, unlike Yeasayer, MGMT hasn’t been as warmly embraced within the circles that embrace things. They signed with Columbia Records for their debut, and maybe going with a major is still “uncool,” thus hate. It could be easy to hate them, and I see that appeal. Their album cover has them on a beach, draped in some weird hippie cloths, half naked. Trippy.
MGMT as a full live band – a five piece – hasn’t been active too long; as in the two guys that recorded the record, made / wrote the album this time last year, then put together a band for performance purposes. That might have worked against them. I’m not sure how they’d recreate songs without these other fellas, but instead of coming off like a modern day T-Rex, which I was really, really hoping for, they sounded a bit Supertrampy instead. For most of the night, they looked a bit freaked out to be on stage, or listless. The place was packed, yet no one really seemed that into it. Maybe there was a bunch of jaded industry types who kept thinking about the long way home. Or maybe it was the muddy mix they were getting.
There were two moments where MGMT succeeded in crowd rousing, and I remember feeling happy for them. After all, they didn’t even have mustaches, so they were forced to work extra hard. The electro-disco-rock anthem “Electric Feel” and the “ode to the rock star” song “Time To Pretend,” both when started, enticed a little roar from those people watching them. Both were adept at recreating the album’s sound, which I enjoyed, if not a bit more up-tempo.
One final thought on MGMT’s uphill battle: aside from the apparent classic-rock reference points, their single “Time To Pretend” is a riff on stereotyped, rocker-model culture. They talk about heroin and coke. Hooking up with models in Paris. Jetsetting. When those models grow up and settle down, you ditch 'em and get new ones, then die while choking on your own vomit. When your main jam celebrates these concepts, you might run the risk of attracting those that also believe in such principles. And those types, well they’re just too cool to get all excited about some “band” “playing” “on stage.”