September 18, 2008

of Montreal With a Bowie Twist

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Four years ago, of Montreal emerged from a series of bouncy, acoustic concept albums with Satanic Panic, a mixture of catchy surf rock, electronic psychedelia and peculiar language. Last year, however, of Montreal did something completely out of character and charted with the acclaimed Hissing Fauna, a dense, darkly contemplative concept album with a synth-heavy Best of Bowie glam sound. Kevin Barnes, the band’s multi-talented frontman, even introduced his complementary ‘70s rock persona Georgie Fruit, a transgendered black man with a propensity for performing completely nude.
With next month’s release of the band’s ninth album, Skeletal Lamping, of Montreal stays put in their Hissing period. By extension, Barnes has entered his Georgie Fruit period: foulmouthed, hypersexual and lyrically freewheeling with an electric funk aesthetic. The Elephant 6 progeny who once drew lukewarm comparisons to Brian Wilson is now an exuberant Ziggy Stardust, with the artistic credibility (and the sales figures) to match.
Matching Lamping’s eclectic lyrical style is its unpredictable sonic variance. Barnes leaps through genres that don’t even exist, from acid glam psychedelia to sixth dimensional heroin pop. The album hugs Hissing’s sound fairly tightly, with a bit of Sunlandic’s disco mentality tossed in (and Satanic’s thesaurus-ripping wordcraft). Yet where Hissing groped towards a bombastic Eurodance sound, Lamping introduces a smoother funk feel. Fun, catchy, bolstered by competent production, Lamping basically sounds like an of Montreal album.
More so than Hissing, Lamping develops as a bundle of disturbing themes, from psychosis to sexual peccadilloes. Barnes calls it “… my attempt to bring all of my puzzling, contradicting, disturbing, humorous … fantasies, ruminations and observations to the surface.” Ruminations like, “I’m so sick of sucking the dick of this cruel city / I’ve forgotten what it takes to please a woman.” I wonder if even Barnes’ wife can finish his sentences.
One surprising feature of Lamping is how dirty it is. Really dirty. On the catchy “Wicked Wisdom,” Barnes, as Georgie Fruit, repeats over a slick funk intro, “I’m the motherfuckin’ headliner, bitch you don’t even know it.” Not exactly Outback Steakhouse material. Elevator fucking, gay-bashing closet cases and vulgar propositions abound on nearly every track. It’s almost as if Barnes is deliberately trying to alienate his undersexed, slightly overweight teenage girl fanbase (or perhaps they too have grown up?).
Yet I find it encouraging that Barnes can credibly do what he’s doing. If you started some lame band and declared your Freddie Glamqueer alterego, you’d basically be a weirdo. But watching Barnes develop artistically is such a delight that this album simply leaves one eagerly awaiting Kev’s next turn. As he wrote in his blog: “[I] didn’t create it to give people something to like. [I] created it because [I] was compelled to.” Kevin, you can do both.
In 1983, hip-hop label Tommy Boy sponsored a remix contest, based on an unsuccessful track called “Play That Beat Mr. D.J.” by the now forgotten G.L.O.B.E. & Whiz Kid. Winners of $100 and a t-shirt were Double Dee and Steinski, not up-and-coming DJs, but low-level advertising workers in their 30s, patient enough to edit sound the old-fashioned way — by cutting up tape.
The resulting track was something like a Charlie Parker improvisation, departing almost entirely from the original. It compressed DJ mixing into miniature, its key innovation being an array of samples from comedy records, movies and radio broadcasts. You could call it the first mash-up. This track is now revered by hip-hop heads as the first of three “Lessons,” but due to its blatant disregard for copyright law, has never been released.
Thanks to Illegal Art, these lessons are finally available, along with eleven other pieces of hip-hop concrète. The remarkable second disc is an hour-long mix/collage, two years in the making. Even now, long after “mash-up” has become a household word, it’s guaranteed to blow your mind.