Logic of Excess
Kevin Barnes’s disco semiotics.
by Sasha Frere-Jones January 26, 2009
Kevin Barnes’s disco semiotics.
by Sasha Frere-Jones January 26, 2009
Of Montreal’s sideshow: face paint, glitter, ruffles.
Photograph by Mackenzie Stroh.
Kevin Barnes, of Of Montreal, has written, performed, and recorded many of its songs alone, but these days he is joined onstage by an increasing number of unpantsed musicians and painted performers. Since the band formed, eleven years ago, in Athens, Georgia, Barnes has been committed to the pleasures and the logic of excess. Why go for the usual themes when you can write a song called “Dustin Hoffman’s Wife Calls in Detective to Dust for Porcelain Particles on Dustin Hoffman’s Tongue” (from a 2001 release with “Dustin Hoffman” in every title) or “There Is Nothing Wrong with Hating Rock Critics”? If 2008 wasn’t a big year for semiotics or for what Barnes calls “the depths of this phallocentric tyranny,” it did no apparent harm to Of Montreal—its latest album, “Skeletal Lamping,” is moving the band closer to the center of whatever the indie-rock conversation is now.
Barnes’s bag of tricks is deep; David Bowie’s bedazzled seventies rock is just as relevant as literary nods, disco highs are as appealing as melodic intricacy, and pleasure seems to drive every one of Barnes’s impatient, rococo arrangements. “Skeletal Lamping,” the group’s ninth and best album, isn’t just the most danceable; disco punches up the hedonism in Barnes’s songwriting, and the steady 4/4 thump helps keep the fidgety songs from splintering.
In the nineties and early aughts, Barnes was roughly in step with his friends in a musical collective called Elephant 6. Along with bands like Elf Power, Of Montreal drew from several decades of melodic guitar pop, especially the English band XTC, and made rackety, exuberant rock albums. Barnes has a high, thin voice that often mimics a falsetto even when he’s not singing falsetto. He could slip seamlessly into the chorus of a Zombies or a Beach Boys record. Pop’s secular boys’ choir is not so removed from the castrato voices of canonical disco acts like the Bee Gees and Sylvester, and Barnes began flirting with derivations of disco in 2005, on the album “The Sunlandic Twins,” with songs like “I Was Never Young” (an uncommonly plain phrase for him) and “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games” (much more like it). Of Montreal came closer to being a de-jure dance band on 2007’s celebrated “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?”
“Skeletal Lamping” continues in this vein, and although it is not always formally dance music, it dances, and rarely leaves the old-fashioned joys of song form behind. Barnes could never settle for dance music’s heartbeat—long stretches of repetition—because his compositions flicker too rapidly. So it is perhaps more helpful to think of Of Montreal as one big dance d.j. rather than as representative of any genre of dance music itself. The songs on “Skeletal Lamping” are like mini mix tapes; strung together, it’s just a whole lot of mixing.
If you want to know exactly how A.D.D. a Barnes song can get, go to the seven-minute “Plastis Wafers,” which could be a self-contained primer on “Skeletal Lamping.” The song has four main sections, and touches on many of the sounds and ideas that Barnes returns to: sexuality, books, disco, progressive seventies rock, androgynous vocals, the shortest distance between two styles, and the entanglement of clear language and ambiguous feelings. Early in the song’s light-footed opening, which might be an Italian disco track from 1981, Barnes sings, “I confess to really being quite charmed by your feminine effects, you’re the only one with whom I would role play Oedipus Rex.” For Barnes, reading and music and sex all seem to be connected to the same central pleasure node. Barnes knows he’s dealing with heady material, which might be why “Skeletal Lamping” is stuffed with so many different sounds and melodies and parts.
On “Hissing Fauna,” he recounts bonding with a girl over Georges Bataille’s “Story of the Eye.” (There is a generation of eighties semiotics students who wish that Barnes had been around twenty years earlier, to make critical theory a little easier to use on dates. But then we had Green Gartside, of Scritti Politti—another writer Barnes has an affinity with, as far as androgyny, literature, and affection for disco are concerned.) After asking his object to be his “pleasure puss” and comparing two sets of hands to “four excited spiders,” Barnes skips from lighter disco to a slightly heavier groove. (These sections are striated into subdivisions.) In one rhapsodic sub-bridge, which sounds a little like a languid Pink Floyd track, Barnes assures his lover that “you and I are friends, not some polemic to be puzzled over.” On “Hissing Fauna,” he made the connection to David Bowie’s work almost explicit, by developing an alter ego named Georgie Fruit. Live shows began to feature more and more costumes and nudity, sometimes involving Barnes dropping trou entirely. Of Montreal became a roving sideshow in face paint, glitter, and ruffles—anything to upend what Barnes would likely call “normative.”
Barnes pushes at definitions. When he sings, “I’m just a black she-male, and I don’t know what you people are all about,” on “Wicked Wisdom,” from “Skeletal Lamping,” it doesn’t seem as genuine as his love for Bataille; it is perhaps a way to scare off anyone who doesn’t want to play the most unorthodox version of indie rock possible. Actually, “indie rock” barely applies to Of Montreal as anything but a description of the people who come to see it. What do you call music with horn parts reminiscent of both Burt Bacharach and Prince?
There’s a bargain with the audience when Of Montreal plays live. In the studio, Barnes has tight control over his hundreds of skeins and can knit everything together and check all the seams. (After a dozen listens, “Skeletal Lamping” doesn’t feel at all jumpy or impatient. Barnes may like to change positions a lot, but he rarely loses track of where the song is.) Onstage, it is considerably harder to reproduce the precision of machines. The pleasure substitute here is spectacle. At a performance last month at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Barnes wore some appealing tight blue bits and pieces, and disrobed extensively. The bigger thrills were left to the non-playing members of the show. The set began with four people draped in gold fabric topped by gold masks, staring at the crowd like Aztec statues that had taken a notion to move about. During the show, a small clutch of agents dressed in black ran around the audience and then painted people with red face paint. The biggest stunt was a supersized puppet operated by five people, one for the head and one for each big fuzzy limb.
The band brought this bit of theatre along when they performed “An Eluardian Instance” on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” As much as I salute Barnes and his cohorts for importing pageant and chaos to the stage, it’s all a little half-baked compared to the music running through Barnes’s head. Of Montreal would have to be a band on a par with the seventies version of Parliament to deliver both theatre and top-quality dance music. That kind of performance skirts Broadway in terms of complexity and production-value demands, and a touring band is going to have a hard time hitting those heights. In Barnes’s case, the spectacle is already in the sound. ♦