Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Few Words on Tokyo Police Club and MGMT

By Evan Rytlewski
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Tokyo Police Club? I’d read about their impending full-length earlier this year, but couldn’t quite pinpoint why they sounded familiar. Hmmmm. I raked my brain before recalling that I’d seen them a year ago at a curious little concert at the Rave with Cold War Kids (remember them?)

From the tone of my write-up, though, they didn’t win me over.

“I need your help on this song,” Tokyo Police Club singer Dave Monks instructed the audience. “It involves two hands and clapping.”

The crowd eagerly complied, but without a memorable, logical tune to clap along with, they were left to improvise, each audience member clapping arhythmically to their own nonsensical beat.

Yes, this is what passes as a song for Tokyo Police Club—in fact, the group actually seemed quite pleased with the tuneless symphony they’d provoked. Bands like these make a strong case for imposing a moratorium on handclaps in indie-rock.

When bands first adopted the handclap at the beginning of the decade, it was a welcome change of pace from the somber, serious mentality of turn-of-the-century indie-rock, and a novel way to invite audience participation in concert. But in recent years, a new wave of peppy indie-rockers have abused the handclap—and few more egregiously than Tokyo Police Club, a band that doesn’t write songs as much as it does paint them by number from a palette of gimmicks and quirks: superfluous percussion, oddball synths, disembodied shouts and cheers. If it’s already been done to death by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, then Tokyo Police Club are all over it.
I was in the minority, of course. Trend-setting blogs were abuzz over these guys, who released their debut album, Elephant Shell this week. I still think my skepticism of them was warranted, though. The disc is a dud, and I think I actually preferred the band when their whiny, Colin Meloy-ish songs were obstructed behind all the layers of quirk. My guess is, like so many other buzz bands that sound better in print than on record, they’ll ride a small wave of publicity for this release (which critics are already damning with “good but not great” reviews), then fade away after critics aren’t so kind to their sophomore album (that’d be a fitting fate, really, since it would see Tokyo Police Club completing Clap Your Hands’ career trajectory.)

Anyway, well I’m on the subject on bands that made a horrible impression on me live but went on to win over the critical establishment, I should say a few overdue words about MGMT. They rubbed me the wrong way when they opened for Of Montreal at the Pabst Theater last October, striking me as snot-nosed, entitled and generally unlikable kids (embarrassing, since it turns out they’re my age). It didn’t help that they seemed to have a disdain for the music they were playing—an ironic, insincere hybrid of ’70s radio rock and disco—and it certainly didn’t help that the band only had a remedial grasp of their instruments. All they did was smirk and pound out tedious bar chords.

Cut to half a year later, when the band is playing Letterman, clocking considerable radio play and feeding SXSW audiences out of the palm of their hands.

This time, I feel compelled to offer a bit of a mea culpa. As much as I still believe the band was out of their element live—they simply don’t have the chops or the personalities to carry a show—I’ve got to concede that they were able to squeak out a pretty damn good debut record, Oracular Spectacular. Of course, they had a secret weapon: Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann, who gave the record his full, spaced-out Soft Bulletin treatment. Only the greatest producers can take thin material and questionable talent and whip it up into something inspired, and Dave Fridmann, it bears repeating, is a great producer.
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