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Skeletal Vamping

From Throwback to Visionary in Under 10 Albums, Starring of Montreal's Kevin Barnes

Kevin Barnes (fourth from left) relentlessly reinvents Of Montreal's music.

By Judy Berman | Posted 10/15/2008

Delicate icicles of classical piano give way to the strains of a sweet, boppy love ballad. An explosion of retro funk takes over, with an ecstatic, high-pitched "Thank you" refrain. An interlude of dissipated, druggy psychedelia provides a brief respite before noisy hard-rock guitar kicks in, battling frantic keyboards. The cacophony fades into a calm but eerie chorus of angelic "oohs" and "aahs."

Such a collage of genres--of the making-sense variety--could be difficult for one band to pull off, even over the course of an entire album. But Of Montreal nimbly combines these vastly different moments into the single six-minute song "Nonpareil of Favor." It's this track that opens the Athens, Ga.-based band's ninth studio album, Skeletal Lamping (Polyvinyl).

"Nonpareil of Favor" sets the tone for a collection of songs so energetic and multifaceted that it blows through generations of pop music without ever losing momentum. On "Wicked Wisdom," Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles vocals sit side by side with a lyric--"We are the champions, my friends"--stolen from Queen. "Death Is Not a Parallel Move" begins with a blast of vintage '80s house before collapsing into crooning murder balladry, as Of Montreal's frontman, Kevin Barnes, comforts his victim with the words "I'm only poisoning you, not gon' stab you." Songs within songs start and end five or six times during single tracks. Some transitions are smooth, as though mixed by a DJ, while others are intentionally jarring. Rock music's famous loud-quiet-loud formula is right out the window.

"I was trying to make a record that had an immediacy, that hits you on a visceral level but that you can also go back to a number of times," Barnes, Of Montreal's sole songwriter, says by phone from his Athens home. "It's boring when you hear a song and you know exactly where it's going."

Barnes, 34, has managed to situate himself at the cutting edge of independent music. Pop innovators such as M.I.A. and Girl Talk's Gregg Gillis disregard traditional genre distinctions, fusing far-flung influences, from bhangra to hip-hop, to create something entirely new. On Skeletal Lamping, Barnes seems to incorporate Gillis' mash-up style into his own songs, snatching a 50-second chorus from one and splicing it against a two-minute guitar solo from another. What results is an upbeat and experimental, if also schizophrenic, 21st-century pastiche of overstimulation.

Though M.I.A. and Girl Talk have made their careers on exploring new sonic frontiers, it's only recently that Of Montreal has begun to sound so revolutionary. When the band released its 1997 debut, Cherry Peel, Of Montreal was a psychedelic/folk-pop throwback, in the vein of older bands in Athens' Elephant 6 collective such as Apples in Stereo and the Olivia Tremor Control. "There was a weird, almost fascist state of mind in the Elephant 6 collective, at least from my perspective," Barnes recently told the You Ain't No Picasso blog. "There were sort of these rules to keep it analog, keep it '60s and '70s." Of Montreal's first string of releases, produced at the breakneck pace of approximately one per year, were quaint and romantic, not to mention dizzyingly culturally literate, concept albums with titles such as The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy and Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse.

Eventually, Barnes began listening to more contemporary music. "It's weird just to live in the past and completely divorce yourself from reality," he says over the phone. "It was like a whole new world opening up creatively. All these new ideas started flowing out of me." The resulting albums registered this sea change. Packed with upbeat, incendiary weirdo anthems, Of Montreal's 2004 breakthrough, Satanic Panic in the Attic, thrust a massive dose of power behind Barnes' intricate pop. More flamboyantly sexual than any of the band's previous recordings, 2005's Sunlandic Twins was Barnes' extended love letter to his new wife, Nina.

Last year's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? remains the most thrilling moment in Of Montreal's career. Written during Barnes' temporary separation from Nina, it radiates psychological distress. The first half of the album combines Satanic Panic and Sunlandic Twins' brand of bouncy pop with lyrics cursing the singer's traitorous brain chemicals and confessing, "We just want to emote till we're dead." But the lament ends in a 12-minute fever-dream tunnel called "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal." Barnes resurfaces to find himself transformed into a character called Georgie Fruit, an aging, black transsexual who used to front a funk band in the '70s. Georgie's songs reverberate with disco bravado, out-there sexuality, and big-time gender trouble. Hissing Fauna is about pain so profound that it must be sublimated, self-hatred so deep that the only way to escape it is to become someone else.

Georgie Fruit returns on Skeletal Lamping, though in an unexpected way. Barnes has said the album gives voice to the cast of characters that populate his overcrowded psyche, and just as he can cycle through several genres in a single track, multiple voices compete for the microphone on each song. "St. Exquisite's Confessions" starts with a typical Georgie line--"I'm so sick of suckin' the dick of this cruel, cruel city"--before switching back to classic obscure Barnes: "We talked about Valerie and Her Week of Wonders," referring to Czech new wave director Jaromil Jires' 1970 movie.

Though he often discussed his alter ego in interviews surrounding Hissing Fauna, now "I try to avoid talking about Georgie Fruit as if he were a real character," Barnes says. "I don't want people to think I'm divorcing myself from reality. He gives a voice to something I feel too vulnerable to say as just Kevin Barnes. But then I realize it is just Kevin Barnes. There is no Georgie Fruit."

In allowing Georgie and other nameless id-driven characters to meld their identities with his own and run free throughout the album, Barnes plumbs the extremes of psychosexual deviance. He is interested in exploring "what is considered acceptable and what is considered taboo, and trying to demystify that so these [constraints] don't have unnecessary power over me," he says. A song called "Women's Studies Victims" is a dark fantasy of a tryst with a young feminist who quotes Germaine Greer and harbors sexual proclivities straight out of Judith Butler. "I took her standing in the kitchen, ass against the sink/ She draped me in a stole, I think Malaysian mink," Barnes intones.

In true avant-garde spirit, Of Montreal is questioning everything, down to the way albums are packaged. As most of the record industry allows itself to be hamstrung by declining CD sales, Barnes and his cohorts are coupling a downloadable version of Skeletal Lamping with a choice of tote bags, T-shirts, wall decals, and other curiosities. "A lot of major people are freaking out because, `What do we do now?'" Barnes says. "But `What do we do now?' is the interesting thing."

At the heart of Skeletal Lamping is the compulsion to dismantle musical clichés and obliterate boundaries. "I want to push music into an area where it's never been before," Barnes says. Like David Bowie, whose Ziggy Stardust period has loomed large over Of Montreal's recent work, Barnes has learned that the only way to remain fresh and exciting--to himself, as well as to his fans--is to keep reinventing himself. If Hissing Fauna was a manifesto on transformation, Skeletal Lamping is that manifesto pushed to its end.

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