Over the last decade or so, there has been no new band I’ve respected or been dazzled by more thoroughly and consistently than Of Montreal (who actually hail from Athens, GA., and are the brainchild of singer/songwriter Kevin Barnes.) I’ve been proselytizing for this bunch for years, and been rewarded with many albums that I consider masterpieces, not to mention surprises. “The Bedside Drama A Petite Tragedy”, “The Gay Parade”, and “Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies” all come to mind quickly, and there’s lots of other highlights scattered through the surprisingly large catalog they’ve built up over the years; I’ve also seen them a few times, and that’s always been a blast, too.
Their last couple of albums have sent interest in the band sky-rocketing, which is delightful, especially if you’ve gotten used to seeing creativity of this magnitude routinely ignored; but these albums have also gotten more and more techno-oriented and less human sounding, partly due to the presence of less humans: in the studio, the band, always largely a one man show anyway, seems to use the other band members contributions less and less (though they’re all credited on the new CD, they’re getting harder and harder to find) -and therein lies the rub. Their latest, “Skeletal Lamping”, continues the trend, and, while it’s an impressive piece of work with more than its quota of interesting ideas, the band’s prior achievements make it look to me like another step in a less rewarding direction.
Track one, “Nonpareil Of Favor”, makes nice at first with a bit of hammered dulcimer, but it only takes a few seconds before the techno bass drum and Kevin as both David Bowie and Prince sets the tone for what’s to come, followed by about a half minute of more normal-sounding Kevin, followed by his announcement that he is “cracking his sweet love”, followed by a particularly relentless crashing and pulsing section (hello, Lightning Bolt!) that lasts for almost 4 minutes.
The next one, “Wicked Wisdom”, starts with the assertion that “I’m a motherfucking headline oh bitch you don’t need to know it”; shortly after, he adds, “I’m just a black she-male”, which hadn’t been my assumption. Here, he’s starting to make a mistake that millions before him have made by counting on the fact that the listener will be fascinated, or at least curious, about his sexuality, when, at least in my case, nothing could be further from the truth. It is also not altogether uncommon for these sort of revelations to be backed up with all manner of technoid white funkisms, and I just wanna say that doesn’t help either, as, up to now, there have been few eartlings less funky than Kevin Barnes (again, not a dig -he’s always had way better things to do!) But then, after a minute or so, when you’re just about ready to throw in the towel, damned if he doesn’t come up with a nice funky little chorus, followed by an even nicer little section along similar lines -a couple of quality minutes! -followed by some auto-harping and mildly Lennon-esque ranting.
Our next stop illustrates my biggest problem with this phase that Barnes has been going through these past few albums, which is that they sound like they were done by one man in a small and airless room. It sounds like most of the instrumentation is keyboard generated, so hardly anything sounds like real instruments; and it’s all extremely competent, unlike the Of Montreal I once treasured so, which was fallible, a little clumsy, and still seemed to feature other, less-talented musicians -yes, I’m pining for Dottie. “For Our Elegant Caste” might’ve made a fairly average (and satisfying) vintage Of Montreal song, but the time is always perfect, there’s no false moves, and no air left in the music, and it suffers. There’s still plenty of interesting ideas here, if you’re intrepid enough to go in for them, but the presentation as is is pretty claustrophobic.
Then you get “Touched Something’s Hollow”, a mopey, introverted little minute and a half voice and piano thing that again evokes “Mind Games”-era John Lennon, which proceeds suddenly into “An Eluardian Instance”, which ain’t so bad, but it’s still a bit glam-y, and ends with the singer requesting “Don’t you pimp out my heart” -like, right, that’s just what I was thinking about doing. No one likes obsessive compulsives more than I do, but there’s a chance this guy needs a hobby.
Then it’s back to techno/funk/dance land in “Gallery Piece”, though with some of the album’s most compelling lyrics, all in the service of love’s most contradictory impulses: “I wanna show you off, I wanna tell you lies, I wanna write you books” -kinda fun, but does it have to sound like a Chic album? Also seems to be one of those songs in search of a chorus -right now, it’s all verse.
And again, a lot of this sounds pretty personal, and in Of Montreal’s case I’d trade personal for hallucinatory anytime. Lyrically, there’s not much in the way of characters and whimsy -it’s mostly Kevin being uncomfortable. I certainly don’t begrudge him needing to write about something different, because of course he has to change, and no one needs to be counted on to be fun all the time, but I’ll be glad when this phase runs its course. Unfortunately for me, the band has attained its greatest success during this period, so while I’m truly and tremendously gratified to see them finally having some long overdue recognition, I know they can’t go back, and only hope boredom will eventually trump commerce and we’ll move on to phase 3 asap.
Meanwhile, “St. Exquisite’s Confessions” is his most egregious Prince rip yet; “Triphallus, To Punctuate!” is again sorta fun, but too relentlessly techno and perfect to be entirely endearing; and then you’ve got one that starts up as a full-fledged 70’s Stones-rip, about “turning tricks on the hood of Jasmine’s car”, making me yearn once again for the days before Kevin seemed to be need street cred. Still, even during this little two-and-a-half minute sliver, there’s a ton of cool ideas, but I don’t know if I want to dance long enough to appreciate them. In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to dance at all, and that if I did it would mainly be to something else. And then the next song thinks it’s really sexy, too,
and, uh, well, er…
This sounds harsh, and I don’t mean it to, but the Flight of the Conchords take on the whole Prince/Bowie thing is more soulful, less pretentious, and funnier. And first -like, a year ago! Too many bands are still doing this shit nowadays -cut it out!
And so it goes, more or less, until the last cut, “Id Engager”, which was also the track the band let out ahead of time as a sneak preview, and is by far the most successful model of the current blueprint. It’s just as techno/disco-y as the rest, but its one of the few where it sounds like fun is being had; you still get the Prince thing, but it doesn’t take over so completely -the Of Montreal side actually wins on this one! Plus, it doesn’t sound so damn autobiographical, and there’s gratuitous ninja references popped in at the end just for laughs. So we leave fortified by the knowledge that the new formula can work, yet looking forward to getting out of this phase at some point in the future… please?
OF MONTREAL- “Skeletal Lamping” *** A relatively irritating manifestation of an incredibly wonderful phenomenon -I’d say download “Id Engager” first, then “Wicked Wisdom” and “Triphallus, To Punctuate!” before heading back to their earlier masterworks. If you’re new to the band, this isn’t where I’d start.