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MGMT’s Ben Goldwasser reviews Ramona Lisa’s “Arcadia”

Ben Goldwasser is a founding member of American psych-poppers MGMT along with singer and lyricist Andrew VanWyngarden. Based in New York City, the group’s most recent self-titled album was released in September 2013 and featured prominently in our cover story from the same time. This is his first review for Electronic Beats Magazine. 


I first met Caroline Polachek, aka Ramona Lisa, through Craigslist, of all places. In 2006, during the writing process for Oracular Spectacular, Andrew and I were searching for a practice space to flesh out ideas. Caroline and her band Chairlift posted an ad on Craigslist, looking for another band to share their room. We all became friends quickly and found that we had a lot of overlap in our musical tastes and a mutual desire to fuse pop music with more esoteric elements. On Arcadia, her first solo record, Caroline has accomplished this and more.

A little over a year ago, a friend invited me to a secret performance of Caroline’s new music. I had no idea that she had recorded an entire album of her own material, and while she may have been nervous to share her project with the world for the first time, I was struck by how the performance presented something fully formed, as though she had been hard at work creating her own universe. Accompanied by haunting videos and choreography, the music seemed unapologetically new but at the same time it was hard to imagine that it had only just been written. The fact that most of it had been produced on a laptop while on tour made it all the more impressive to me, given that that process can be really tedious. Unlike most music produced “in the box”, which lacks depth or falls too heavily on repetitive loops, Arcadia sounds rich and meticulously arranged and is constantly taking unexpected directions.

There’s a great interview with Angelo Badalamenti where he describes how he composed the musical themes for Twin Peaks. While sitting at a Fender Rhodes trying out ideas, David Lynch guided him through the various images and moods of the show. I can imagine a similar visual approach to writing music when I listen to Arcadia.  While most of the songs on the album stand well on their own, such as “Backwards and Upwards”, which is an outright jam, the entire album seems to guide you through a tangible fantasy world.

There’s a great blend of old and new on Arcadia. I’m constantly reminded of other music that I like (for instance, I was tricked into thinking that I was listening to OMD at one point when “Avenues” came on when my phone was playing music on shuffle), but there’s always a novel sonic element or juxtaposition of styles that keeps the music from venturing too far into pastiche.  It doesn’t hurt that her voice is a striking, singular instrument that she is in excellent command of.

This is the kind of album that takes you by surprise. It doesn’t seem to come from any scene in particular, but it could easily further the opportunity for music to be accepted as “pop” while retaining a feeling of experimentation that goes beyond just adopting whatever flavor-of-the-month production tricks happen to be in vogue. Maybe most impressive is that through Arcadia’s strangeness and familiarity, it conveys real human emotion, and what kind of music does that these days? ~


This text first appeared in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 38 (2, 2014). You can purchase the new issue, and back issues, in the EB Shop.

Published July 29, 2014. Words by A.J. Samuels.