Tuesday, June 23, 2009

2006-03-22 - Flagpole

No Rest For The Weary

Over The Past Year, Of Montreal Has Become A Non-Stop Pop Juggernaut

Cover the streets with palm fronds, or sound some trumpets at least, or do whatever it is that you’re supposed to do when welcoming home conquering heroes. It wouldn’t hurt to slaughter a baby lamb or three - just to make sure, of course. Because when Of Montreal plays at the 40 Watt this Friday, Mar. 24, the band will be returning from the biggest tour of its long career; it’s time that Athens gives Of Montreal more than any old firm handshake, more than just another pat on the back.

Of Montreal’s successes over the past year have culminated in three distinct ways. First is the ever-increasing success of last year’s album The Sunlandic Twins. The album followed up 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic, an album that saw Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes setting out on his own, performing the heavy majority of the songwriting and recording duties by himself. Up until that point, Of Montreal was best known as the band best suited to ’60s pop pastiches, loading up with storytelling, quirky characters and an overwhelming whimsy. The band had driven itself into a bit of a rut with 2002’s capable yet rote Aldhil’s Arboretum. Satanic Panic took the band into louder ’70s garage pop hinted at by tracks on that previous album, and Sunlandic Twins, with its catchy, synth-heavy dance numbers, built a glittery superstructure upon that more muscular foundation. Barnes’ newest songs are also unapologetically emotional and personal, lacking the detached distance of the past.

“I wanted to get back into writing more personal songs,” says Barnes, speaking over a staticky cell phone connection from Illinois. He’s busy backseat driving while soundman Dan Korn is looking for the right highway exit to take the band to a venue in Chicago. “I’m coming back to wanting to share more with people, I guess, and I’m feeling more competent, less vulnerable. I think the emotional stuff has more resonance with people. Character-based, short-story-type songs are only going to connect with a certain group of people who are already really interested in that kind of history of pop songwriting.”

The new songs certainly have connected; Of Montreal’s label Polyvinyl Records reports that it has sold 30,000 copies of the album more than a year after its release, making Sunlandic Twins the label’s best-selling record to date. That’s an impressive feat, considering that the label has been home to other popular indie acts like Mates of State, Braid, Joan of Arc and Rainer Maria. Factor in the likelihood that that figure doesn’t include a number of independent record store sales, on-line sales and discs the band has sold directly, and the number inches closer to 40,000. If that’s the case, then Sunlandic Twins has almost sold more than the combined sum of Of Montreal’s eight past full-lengths.

The second aspect of the band’s success over the past year has been its strong and steady tour. Overseas dates have always brought big crowds, and Of Montreal is rolling in to town this week to wrap a U.S. tour that saw shows sold out well ahead of time, even in larger cities like Los Angeles and New York. The current touring band - Barnes, Dottie Alexander, Jamey Huggins, Matt Dawson and Bryan Poole - delivered no less than five performances at last week’s South by Southwest.

“It definitely came as a surprise,” says Barnes, “because we had kind of reached this level, or maybe we were in a valley, for a while, in terms of popularity, and didn’t seem to be growing that much. But then with Satanic Panic things just kind of took off, and even more so on this tour, so that was encouraging.”

The interest in Of Montreal’s current output has revitalized some of the older material as well, in what is the third point of promise for Of Montreal. Polyvinyl earlier this month reissued 1997’s The Bird Who Continues to Eat the Rabbit’s Flower, 1998’s The Bedside Drama: a Petite Tragedy, and 2001’s The Early Four Track Recordings, releases which had been out of print for some time but, in part due to the 2003 collapse of former home Kindercore Records, can now see the light of day once again. Barnes says he’s happy for fans to look into his older work, though he says it doesn’t hold much interest for him.

“That kind of writing is in my past,” he says, “and I don’t really remember too much about [the songwriting]. The way things go for me artistically is that I’ll get really into something, and then after a while, I get kind of bored and forget about it, and the whole situation surrounding it, really. So I don’t really like to dissect it after the fact. I guess back then I was in a worse mood most of the time, and it was easier to write about characters than it was to write about my own life.”

Barnes says that after this week’s performance, he plans to take a little time off before diving back into recording. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? is the tentative title of the band’s forthcoming album. “I’m about 60 percent done with it,” says Barnes. “The plan is to finish recording it by August, and then have it out in January of next year.” And on the horizon is a remix album of tracks from both Satanic Panic and Sunlandic Twins, featuring contributions by I Am the World Trade Center, !!!, Grizzly Bear, Trash UK and Broken Spindles, among others.

The Of Montreal that fills the 40 Watt this week isn’t the same band that charmed (some of) Athens in the ’90s, but it seems that progress is what suits Kevin Barnes best. This week’s show will feature a number of new songs, says Barnes. “I like the improv moments of the shows, lately,” he adds. “As much as the set is kind of scripted and presented as a theatrical piece, it’s nice to throw in something different and unexpected. It’s kind of liberating, not knowing what’s going to happen. It could suck, or be great. Usually those moments come out of boredom, and avoiding the little traps you set for yourself. That’s when I enjoy what I’m doing.”

- Chris Hassiotis

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