[2 April 2009]
Last year, I found Skeletal Lamping something of a revelation. The intricacy of Kevin Barnes’ song-constructs, their freedom and abandon and other-ness, seemed to reach a new level of sophistication. Bouncing forward off the back of the excellent twisted-disco of Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, Skeletal Lamping has cemented of Montreal as serious proponents of more-is-more, and further—it makes us take it seriously. Meanwhile Barnes’ lyrics, all literacy and smut and abandon, are sometimes outrageous for their own sake and sometimes lewd for their own sake. Just as often, though, they capture some escapist fantasy—climbing the rocks, looking at the mountain goats, “our last summer as independents.” Then there are his one-liners—the one about Oedipus, the one about the “black she-male”, the one about the “phallocentric tyranny”—they stick in your head, as you can imagine.
In the live setting, critics have talked about a “contract with the audience”, which is a kind way of saying the group’s messier and more ragged than in the clean confines of the studio. The upside is a more muscular sound, a driving surge of guitars that gets surprisingly heavy. Seeing the band live thus strangely deepens their music and lessens it. The heady wit and jarring juxtapositions are smoothed out to homogenous beat; but at the same time, their muscularity continually undermines the group’s disco tendencies and half-formed jams. They’re still sending musically mixed messages.
There’s something else—the pageantry and spectacle the band’s embraced. Though there was no white horse for Barnes to ride in on, there were (among many others) these things: A black ninja; a tiger in a white tuxedo; a bishop sagely blessing the performers; a moustachioed, long-haired gymnast in tight spandex; gold Yoda; gold Buddha; and a strangely spraypainted John McCain/George Bush/demon layered mask. They periodically pranced onto the stage and strutted, arms held high above their heads, without heed of the music. Meanwhile, of Montreal’s characteristically acidic animations played on a large screen in the background, and Barnes, in gaudy eyeliner and painted nails, did his thing front and centre.
In front of them, the seventeen and eighteen year olds in their crow-adorned caps and streaky makeup danced and shrieked at each new song. Why has of Montreal drawn such an adoring cadre of teenage fans? It may be the self-immolation that swirls through Barnes’ lyrics, though at the same time his beats are eminently danceable. Surprisingly, they were as au fait with the group’s older material as the stuff off Skeletal Lamping. of Montreal hit every high from Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and plenty from The Sunlandic Twins and earlier. Especially on this earlier material, the group set up a continual struggle against the pull of disco and often succumbed. Though at times thrilling—“Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse” incited waves of eager adoration—this material suffered at times from the muddy low end of Manning’s soundsystem.
I suppose the most lasting pleasure that comes from seeing this band live is the occasionally spectacular combination of the visual, the animated, and the musical stimuli the group’s throwing at you. “Plastis Wafers” and “Id Engager” both seemed like these moments of perfect over-the-top excess, bouncing with irreverence and vitality. There were skulls and strange monsters and Satanic symbols, but the intent was never malicious in the same way that the anti-normative stance of everything the group touches isn’t malicious. Barnes’ individual narratives may be filled with confusion, miscommunication, and rejection, but his music’s eminently inclusive. It yearns to be pop, but ends up too smart for its own good.
Earlier, openers the Ruby Suns were impressive. Cut from the mould of El Guincho, who they resemble in manner and occasionally in sound, their hyperactive commingling of tropicalia and house pepped the crowd, a considerable number of whom had come in early specifically to see them. Ruby Suns’ most famous song is “Tane Mahuta”, a sparkling Beach Boys/Maori boys psych-pop gem, which had even those new to the band smiling and clapping. The group (main man Ryan McPhun joined this time by a musician friend from Melbourne) confidently stepped through the music from Sea Lion, occasionally yelping, Animal Collective-style, with an unabashed glee.
Then a guy in a white tuxedo with a rubber tiger mask walked onstage, balled up his fists and pumped to the sky, exposing a huge barrel chest, and it was time for the spectacle that is of Montreal.