After 10-plus years in the indie-pop underground, it seemed that both the world and Of Montreal mastermind Kevin Barnes were quite content for the Athens, Ga., band to stay in the dimly lit spaces of the pop world.
No question, Barnes is a freak- and freaks very rarely make it into the mainstream, unless they're willing to stuff their freakishness into the closet, only discussing it in hushed tones.
Then came the Outback Steakhouse, of all things. The Australian chain employed Of Montreal's "Wraith Pinned to the Mist (and Other Games)" as a television jingle, with altered lyrics extolling the virtues of steak-eating, as opposed to Barnes' considerably more obtuse observations. Far more people heard the tune than would've otherwise, and many of them seemed to like what they heard. Barnes, as befits his seemingly manic-depressive character construction, was absolutely horrified. One assumes he cashed the check, however.
Though the band's ninth album, "Skeletal Lamping," out today, has been prefaced by the largest amount of high-profile press Of Montreal has ever been granted, it still doesn't seem like Barnes has crafted a collection of songs and sounds that is likely to endear him to the pop-gobbling masses. If anything, he's become even more (charmingly) obtuse.
The album's title alone makes plain the Barnes manifesto; rather than stuff his kinky skeletons in the closet, he's shining the brightest lights he can find directly upon them. ("Lamping" refers to the practice employed by some hunters in which a large area is completely flooded by powerful lights, and then anything that moves gets shot. You see where this is going.)
Formed in the mid-'90s, as part of the now infamous Elephant Six Collective, which also included other Athens bands Olivia Tremor Control, Apples in Stereo and Elf Power, Of Montreal translated Barnes' multihued experience of reality into way trippy, psychedelic hybrids of straight dance pop, baroque multilayered alt-rock, and progressive music. Live, the band brought extreme theatricality to the stage. In the studio, Barnes worked mostly alone, crafting immaculate pop confections that followed no rules aside from their creator's whims.
"Skeletal Lamping" does not seek to change this paradigm, nor to cash in on the "brand name's" heightened public profile. Instead, it arrives like a candy-coated Heironymous Bosch painting, a technicolor orgy of tones that is proably a lot like the sound Barnes hears in his head as a matter of course. (A few of the songs, however, are far more Gustav Klimt, in their Romantic cloaking of frank sexual subjects.)
Clearly, Barnes would much rather be Prince than, say, John Legend; most of "Lamping" is funk-based, groovy and sex-obsessed, but like the Purple One, Barnes only employs straight pop as a means of paying the toll for the bridge to Freak-ville. As if the whole Outback thing is still pricking at Barnes' sense of musical integrity, this "potential mainstream breakthrough" effort is actually the oddest Of Montreal record to date. It is comprised mostly of song fragments, ornate layerings of raunchy funk, grandiose, pseudo-operatic stacks of vocal harmonies, show-tune gaudiness, and the gorgeous kitsch of prime-period Electric Light Orchestra.
The abrupt shift in focus and topic between the tunes "Death Isn't A Parallel Move" and "Beware of Nubile Miscreants" serves as an apt case in point. The former starts off like low-budget, mid-'80s, shoegazer altrock, turns into the Beatles' "Dear Prudence" as covered by Freddie Mercury-era Queen, flirts with Rufus Wainwrightstyle camp, and finally segues, abruptly and unapologetically into the seedy, steamy funk of "Nubile Miscreants," which is itself prefaced by thick, Roy Wood-styled cellos.
All of this happens in the space of less than five minutes.
Fans of the band expect this, though, and they'll likely be delighted by Barnes' continued refusal to play the game by anyone else's rules.
A caveat for the easily offended listener and the concerned parent alike - "Skeletal Lamping" is pretty "filthy," if we're to accept the method of measuring such to be based upon frequency of curse words and sexual references.
"For Our Elegant Caste" would've likely gotten Tipper Gore's britches in a knot back in the days of the PMRC, such a microscopic view does it offer on what many people would probably call "deviant sexuality," but which sounds like just an average Tuesday at Chateau Barnes. (The singer is married, and recently became a father which, according to a recent feature in Rolling Stone, caused the singer to freak out. As one does.)
Mostly, though, this is all just good fun, a carnival-esque frolic through the fertile field of Barnes' agile mind. Equally significant is the quality and scope of the recording itself, which sets the bar high for "home recording" of the digital variety.
Of Montreal Skeletal Lamping
3 1/2 (Out of four)