Thursday, October 23, 2008

[outsideleft] Of Montreal: Contessa Under Pressure

Of Montreal
Skeletal Lamping

Much of the perceived danger in rock is when able-bodied young men start acting like women, not like actual women but as "women", dressing in soft fabrics (T. Rex, Robert Plant) , acting like shrieking wrecks (James Brown) throwing their emotional ropes to anyone on the shore willing to catch them (all singer-songwriters), suckering them in with icy distance (Bowie). Freddie Mercury topped them all in excess. Prince, whose name actually means the peak of virile youngmanhood, the limit of feral masculinity before the coronation into the static pattern of adulthood, embodied all these characteristics in toto, and though you wouldn’t know it from looking at him now, so did Brian Eno back in the day. The crown of the Fairy King is an alluring one for the boy man enough to wear it.

Kevin Barnes of Of Montreal is a worthy ascendant to that throne in that he has all the above stolen prescriptions tucked into his handbag. His shtick (began with earnest on 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are you the Destroyer?) is that retools the pansexual shticks of his feathered, perfumed forefathers and is willing to let that play out in the press to gather attention while, like the mentors aforementioned, removing the off-limits area of what may be employed in the service of a great song. On Skeletal Lamping, Barnes is catwalk stomping on every fey groover blocking the path. On the album’s disco manifesto “Gallery Piece” he vigorously delivers his list I wanna make you scream, I wanna braid your hair, I wanna kiss your friends… alighting on a more resolute I only go all the way, this time I’m not pretending. Throughout this record, Barnes collapses the wants and wishes of so much pop music into neatly coordinated pastiches of seamless electro (“Misusings”), chilly minimalism (“Nonpareil of Favor”), and feckless cocky glam (“And I’ve Seen a Bloody Shadow”). He goes full-on Midnight-at-the-Oasis pliant on “Plastis Wafers” and pens maybe the first perfect song of his catalog with “An Eluardian Instance,” going at least a month past The Decemberists’ in crafting cinematic pop bliss.

But, we have ProTools and decades of perfect pop songs to pull from. Any yahoo with ears can push his or her cart down the supermarket aisles and put together a reasonably palatable postmodern smörgåsbord, but it takes a force from within to make a tantalizing meal. That meal begins with “St. Exquisite’s Confessions” which opens with the most convincing appropriation of true R&B since the Isaac Hayes hook in The Geto Boys “Mind’s Playin’ Tricks on Me”– I’m talking the stuff that gets played in shadowy dives into which no one you know has ever ventured and not on some Big Chill Thawing satellite schmoove station or hipster mixtape; not Shuggie Otis but his daddy Johnny. Barnes opens by crooning a sentiment with which we can all identify – I’m so sick of suckin’ the dick of this cruel, cruel city, and by "open," I don’t mean he just starts the song, I mean he opens the song to reveal the soul squirming, pressurized in his aforementioned tighter compositions.

In typical Of Montreal style, the style continually mutates through electro-disco and psychedelic dimension-bending until it slides without notice into “Triphallus, To Punctuate!” –Afropop corrupting Bay City Rollers with a tweaked drum machine on the docking bay of ELO’s spaceship. What Barnes understands about the feminine mystique, what the other veil-dropping Salome’s before him that dared to tongue the skull right there in front of everyone, is that is not enough to just wear the outfit, the real power lies in how you move through the room.


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