Their breakthrough, "Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?" catapulted the band to the upper echelon of indie stardom. The record landed on over thirty major year-end lists including Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Associated Press, and sold over 100,000 copies. "Skeletal Lamping" also delivers. It's a complicated and dense thrill ride packed with slinky grooves. Unpredictable, unique, and epic.
Review by Andrew Leahey
During the closing moments of 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, bandleader Kevin Barnes introduced his alter ego, an effeminate singer by the name of Georgie Fruit. One year later, that character runs amok on Skeletal Lamping, having wrenched the spotlight away from Barnes' sugary pop and trained it on an ambitious hybrid of glam rock, experimental R&B, and Scissor Sisters-styled sex-funk. Barnes sounds truly uninhibited under the Fruit guise, making declarations like "I'm just a black she-male!" with flamboyant confidence. Such a shift in direction marks Of Montreal's ascent into the psychedelic clouds where Ziggy Stardust once flew, only this time, the listener catches a ride on the back of a transgendered Prince fanatic whose songs are fragmented and confusing, yet still peppered with irresistible hooks.
Like the album's cover art (an origami-influenced billfold whose flaps unfurl to form a giant floral display), Skeletal Lamping demands attention by being purposely puzzling. The music is extravagant and elaborate; each song is comprised of multiple vignettes, many of them completely different in style, and each track spills into the next. It's interesting to watch the pieces fit together -- to pinpoint the exact second where one song ends and another one begins -- but that's tantamount to looking at the adjacent parts of puzzle pieces without standing back to witness the full picture. So while Skeletal Lamping sounds impressive as it unfolds, what ultimately takes shape is a somewhat erratic album, filled with quick flashes of pop melody but mostly devoid of truly realized songs (although several tracks, particularly the buoyant "An Eluardian Instance," do come close). Whether or not one enjoys Skeletal Lamping depends on the listener's tolerance for unchecked ambition and left-field experimentation, both of which are emphasized here to the songs' detriment. Of Montreal has rarely sounded so free, so unrestrained, but Kevin Barnes has also never flaunted lyrics like "I'm so sick of sucking the dick of this cruel, cruel city" and "I want you to be my pleasure-puss, I want to know what it's like to be inside you, I wanna give you that oooh la!" This is a love-it-or-lump-it album, a polarizing effort that -- depending on personal preference -- is either irresistibly attractive or laughably, overzealously pretentious.
Combined Rating: 60%
So, not exactly the most popular calling then. Of Montreal—that swinging dick band—have made the album you always wished/feared they’d risk killing their career over. This is the year’s most belabored, excruciatingly catchy indie-pop record. As if to one-up Weezer for title of this year’s most exasperating hatefuck, Barnes and co. headed for straight-irony overload and, well, actually did it. Skeletal Lamping is basically weird auto-erotic fan-fiction. It is sick, and sort of stupid. Totally overdone. It’s also, though, a really good album, frickin’ enjoyable, whether or not you’ve got a dick stuck in a toaster.
And to think we’d all been sitting by elevators doing nothing when this Barnes dude—moving with the secondhand, exploding the news and cliché, etc—fell the fourteen long floors to his impending death at the foot of incoherence. This is that good music suicide leap album. This is Barnes saying “fuck discourse, I’m going to Georgie’s Town, real-like; hear me become that real bofo Wax-Musician, wax-like sound-like.” This is Barnes taking the ample piss out of Barnes, meaning he outdoes himself wildly. A brief, fleeting overview would find songs, songs, songs—like, a churning postscript of absolute tune-age and verse. Make no mistake: this is overkill, big-time. There’s also the disquieting suspicion that we’re being fucked somehow. Make that really fucked.
One hears him whoop and holler and, if not quite convincingly transformed, at least catch him on the way to some new high amusement. “Touched Something’s Hollow” makes a brief respite—all coruscating melodrama and sullen keys, Barnes questioning, predictably enough, his ability to “hold on / if things will be like this forever.” Cueing then the wheeling, brash “Eluardian Instance” with its Mountain Goats shout-outs and dizzy hornotopia; followed, in turn, by “Gallery Piece”‘s smirking put-ons, its melodic curfew; the explosive rig-up that sees mock-epic “Plastis Wafers” turn from moot yazz to, um, kissing metal. And…you get the picture. Silly, stupid shit.
This is roughly the same beef I had with Jens Lekman last year, so now some explaining, I guess, for why Jens, broadly-speaking, sucks and why Barnes can get away with this silly stuff. The split difference being that whereas Jens is trying to build into this grand canonical ultra-schlem who just happens to be called Jens Lekman, Barnes, you get, just wants to be kooky and/or Prince. His is an open-enough game to allow for great Plan-B’s, resonant plagiarism, the odd dull percussion set. And if this entails black shemales, broken knobs, Triphalluses, Halo K-Holes, sex, riding on a fucking pony, if it entails that stuff and all sorts of other genrecaust stupidity that’s, like, an up-close-and-personal affront to music lovers of animal experience worldwide, then, he says, fuck it. Whatever trip Barnes is on, it’s working. Skeletal Lamping is so folded in-on-itself in its ambition that it can’t miss, really; can’t not make sense ‘cos the joke is too thin on the ground, the range sort of laughably limited. But within those narrow, narrow constricts—which, briefly: Of Fucking Montreal—_Skeletal Lamping_ parts enough nonsense, enough wayward catchiness to mark its hour-long egofest as something unique and (yes) enjoyable. His band’s always been hetero-sporadic: Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? made out a couple duff tracks and the pre-dance stuff, even, often loses itself in the odd misstep. No such issue here, though: these fifty-five minutes are that misstep, the band now landing in some bed of gross productivity they’d only previously flirted with. Self-destruction is consummate and Barnes, playing Company-Girl, foots his bill at the point where further development is either moot, or retarded. None of these songs needed to be written. All of them, though, are kind of good.
No one’s doubting Barnes’ ability to rewrite pop hooks into some kind of semantic nirvana. “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal” is legacy enough to how this guy can make eerie business out of some really slim motif. Lamping, if anything, only narrows that agenda and, of course, a lot of how fun/not-fun you’re going to find this really depends on stuff like personal constitution, Abraham-ness, whether you own a toaster, etc. That said, I find Skeletal Lamping undeniable: music without pretension or ambition. For big long stretches, music without frontier, or even that gasp of silence that’d relegate these hypermelodies and too-hard beats into tracks with titles and lengths and some degree of singularity. Labored intricacies and some shoddy inter-song patchwork aside, Skeletal Lamping lands like one big corpus of undivested shit.
But so Skeletal Lamping is real ground-clearing stuff; as if in lieu of actual music, we get stuff that’s loose and bawdy and horribly, tectonically calculated, stuff whose only claim of resemblance to the stuff that it out-and-out claims to resemble are the hysterical and never-ending run of catchy melodies and inveterate hooks that lace its weird, un-ejective body. The sharp ennui of “St. Exquisite’s Confessions” soon runs ragged. Skeletal Lamping goes nowhere, does nothing and just sort of sits there, smug, casually brilliant. It is exactly the record you’d expect Kevin Barnes to make right now: briefly, the concept record as heart failure. Seriously. Never before has engaging in serious cardiomyopathic trade been this remote, or satisfying.
24 October 2008