Diamonds and Coal

Of Montreal

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

From Outback Steakhouse commercials to onstage full-frontal nudity, Of Montreal has done it all.  That’s not too much of an exaggeration when you consider how long they’ve been around — twelve years and counting — and how committed they are to doing wacked-out stuff year after year.  Spawned in Athens, Georgia (as opposed to, say, Montreal) in 1997, the band has had a lot of time to hone their craft, both on their bizarrely-named albums and in their truly absurd live shows. Spring Weekend should find them more than capable of entertaining and fascinating the audience, temporarily transporting you to a far-away planet colonized in the ‘80s by David Bowie.

Of Montreal’s frontman and evil genius mastermind is Kevin Barnes, a guy who’s definitely not afraid to mess with conventions of any sort. On stage and in his albums, he frequently assumes the persona of Georgie Fruit, a male-to-female-to-male-again transgendered, middle-aged black guy who used to be in a funk band known as Arousal. For a scrawny, straight-leaning white guy like Barnes, this is a risky character to take on.  Thankfully, Barnes’s Georgie Fruit is a simply ramped-up aspect of himself instead of a caricatured other, so the musical differences between Kevin Barnes and Georgie Fruit are fairly minor and never jarring.

In 2007, Of Montreal released Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (a lot of rhetorical questions , a tour de force of that pseudo-genre known as the breakup album.  Written while separated from his wife Nina, with whom he is now reunited, Hissing Fauna explores the dark territory of depression through the lens of glam grandeur.  The painfully titled “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse” is a deliriously happy song about being a helpless bystander while your moods and psych meds battle for control, featuring Barnes’s pleas for his mental state to “shift back to good again.”  Minus the lyrics, this track wouldn’t be out of place on a kids’ show.  Halfway through the album comes the much-lauded, nearly-12-minute “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” which is reminiscent of the title track on the Cure’s classic dark pop album Disintegration in length, devastation, and supernatural intensity.  It perfectly captures the torrent of mixed emotions that follow a significant breakup; Barnes reminds his ex that “no matter where we are / We’re always touching by underground wires.”

When “Grotesque Animal” wraps up, it’s time for Georgie Fruit to emerge and take the stage during the rest of the album. Georgie definitely brings the funk on the spacey “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider” and the slick, creepy “Labyrinthian Pomp.”  The album ends with a beautiful track that sounds like a collaboration between the sad, neurotic Barnes and the party-boy Georgie, “We Were Born the Mutants Again with Leafling.”  The fast, jittery drums and sexy harmonies are all Georgie, but the wistful pain that bleeds through this song comes straight from Barnes.  It’s a perfect melding of Barnes’s two sides, creating a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

The albums that directly precede and follow Hissing Fauna are also worth checking out, though for very different reasons.  2005’s The Sunlandic Twins isn’t as cohesive or consistently good as Hissing Fauna, but it features several moments of pure, unadulterated bliss.  See “Everyday Feels Like Sunday,” a complete reversal of the morose Morrissey single of the same title, “The Party’s Crashing Us,” which features the immortal line “We made love like a pair of black wizards,” and the coolly catchy “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games,” which you should remember from when it was featured in an Outback Steakhouse commercial, complete with changed lyrics designed to remind listeners how succulent those bloomin’ onions are.  This caused major sellout drama in some sectors of their fanbase, but Barnes wasn’t ashamed — he needed the money to put on kickass live shows and, presumably, to stay well-stocked in feather boas and fishnets.
The band’s most recent album, Skeletal Lamping, came out in October and immediately caused a more pressing controversy than the Great Bloomin’ Onion Debate. 

Skeletal Lamping is more a free-flowing mishmash of musical fragments than a collection of full-length songs, a departure from the ear-pleasing pop that made Of Montreal a successful band.  Some critics thought that the album was an innovative and intelligently crafted work of art, while other reviewers (including this one) thought that the album was an awkward disappointment.  Another strange element is the staggering amount of sex in this album.  Sex has always been a beloved lyrical theme for Barnes, but Skeletal Lamping is preoccupied with sexual terms, images, and metaphors to an extent that’s pretty funny but more than a little awkward.  If the line “Texting your freaky fantasies to my phone / Black condoms on vanilla ice cream cones” in a song entitled “Triphallus, to Punctuate!” doesn’t weird you out, this is probably the album for you.

While Of Montreal is by no means a perfect band, they’re indisputably an awesome band.  They know how to write songs that are funny, thought-provoking, musically intriguing, and truly pleasing, and they know how to perform them in a way that will capture your attention with a vice-grip.  What could be better on a (knock on wood) lovely spring day?