Here, We Take Our Playtime Seriously

December 5, 2008 at 10:42 pm (Music)


Of Montreal: Skeletal Lamping

Although the offer looks like it’s gone out of print after pre-orders, the album was available in tote bag, t-shirt, compact disc, and vinyl format. Every version is available in this deluxe package, but it looks like only the cd and vinyl can now be ordered a la cart, but no matter how you purchase it, you are getting a visual treat.

The CD:

01413_skeletal_cd_unfolded1

and the vinyl:

01414_skeletal_lp1

Before even opening the package, it’s already intimidating release, more menacing and animalistic than the simply formatted mandalas from their last full length.

Even more intimidating, though, is how good the previous album was. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? was a tremendous release from the thrust of Barnes’ catharsis. He used to write playful, sporadic compositions, but with the banging of the dance beats and the motivation of depression, his music left its twee roots and ruts, becoming a bleak and manic romp through identities musical and lyrical until the album ended with a moment of finally unadorned songwriting craft, the kind that dominated his earlier output: the artist had finally shaken off the pain by returning to the past, the entire album documenting his grief, depression, and acceptance through its stylistic shifts. More than well crafted pop music (which it was), the album was a sonic narrative of its artist’s life through catharsis, and it had howling lows but an ultimately happy end.

Skeletal Lamping gives a name and face to who catharts, and, if it is good, it’s good in an entirely different way than its predecessor. Instead of quirky and catchy songs, we get fragmentary excursions into different genres either lasting for a ten second hook or a three minute verse. The album starts out with a simple love song from an unrequited lover, then shifts into distorted distance before it ends in a popapology for the mess that its anger just made. And that’s just the first track!

If only the rest of the album was as tightly bound to a narrative, and had as much meaning and force attached to its sonic shifts. The rest of the album isn’t nearly as controlled. Sometimes, it just throws its genre references into the track and hope that everything sticks. And, most of the time it does with dance percussion or subtle vocal harmonies populating a track with an entire of Kevin Barnes singing on each.

This would be impressive, if the album was paced to match the tone of its songs. The cloying bridge“It’s always hot magic” in “Wicked Wisdom” continues relatively unchanged for a healthy three minutes, and the chorus from “For Out Elegant Caste” is just annoying and sounds like the most decadent nickelodeon theme song. Some songs stretch on way too long, but on the other hand, some of the album’s best moments flit run in one ear and out the other. These fragments are far from evenly cut, and instead of working together towards a composite climax or, sometimes they just change for no reason into a different tempo and instrumentation. The album would gain a lot from fading out some songs so it isn’t an exhausting, hyperactive sprint through its tracks.

Whenever performing covers, Of Montreal is notable for its exact mimicry. Barnes tries his darnedest to imitate the voices of his coverees, and he does a wonderful job doing it*. But there’s little point in putting out a duplicate recording of the song, and here, on this album, we start to see the fruit of Barnes’ practiced mimicry.

*See: Zombies’ Friends of Mine and Of Montreal’s; M.I.A.’s Jimmy and Of Montreal’s; Bowie’s Starman and theirs.

This album sees more relentless impersonation instead of having him manipulate his songs stylistically. One song finds him doing a David Bowie impersonation (“And I’ve Seen a Bloody Shadow”), and another showcases an M.I.A impersonation (“Death is Not a Parallel Move”), and all of this mastery over voice and pitch is Barnes remarkable gift. But it makes him into a ventriloquist instead of singer.

This brings up an interesting point of who or what motivates Kevin to write the songs that we have here, and it’s completely new ground for the artist. Ever since the last album, he’s been fleshing out his own style as an artist by making his work autobiographical. He no longer knows the end to his fantastical stories as he did on his earlier concept albums or character songs. To me, this unpredictability can be thrillingly authentic and yield beautiful and inimitable lyrics: “I’ve come to free you from this phallocentric tyranny”, from Id Engager, compared to the chorus, “Don’t Wanna Be Your Man, Just Wanna Play With You”, cleanly describes the simultaneously aroused and compassionate frontman that wouldn’t be out of place singing Prince’s If I Was Your Girlfriend). But its authenticity and spontaneity becomes a problem: it just never comes to an ending. It just stops recording the sexual odyssey of Geordie fruit without finale. The last song’s noncommittal lust (chrous: “Don’t Wanna Be Your Man, Just Wanna Play With You”) isn’t too far from the third song’s sexual polymorphism (chorus: “We Can Do It Softcore If You Want, But You Should Know That I Go Both Ways”). Although Barnes invites a new story with a stage persona, this second album offers less progress, a devolution of Hissing Fauna’s well paced album and ultimately peaceful finale. Even Ziggy lost his appeal and Bowie could no longer produce alien music fascinated by American sounds and styles. This release suggests that maybe Barnes should abandon his persona as Geordie Fruit after it has outworn its welcome after it has become indistinguishable from Barnes himself, but the album offers no such conclusion. Just an out of the blue dramatic string ending that recalls David Bowie’s “Rock and Roll Suicide”.

From the lovingly created pastiche and incredible range of material in the album, I get the feeling that Barnes and crew have spent more time thinking about the album’s formalities and references instead of listening to its sound. The same synthetic drum sounds, the same harmless but scattershot bass sounds inform almost every song: they paint new pictures, but they’re doing it without changing the palette. While it is a release deserving more praise than critique, it is not the stellar and sublime example of Twee pop contorted into elaborate electro punk, it listens more like evidence of Of Montreal’s songwriting capabilities, and less like songs with that mastery applied, and, come one: we already knew they had potential.

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