Of Montreal shares sweet view from top of the heap
“We want our film to beautiful, not realistic,” Kevin Barnes once yelped in a song from the 2007 album “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?” Within the context of the whirring 11-minute track “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” the proclamation from Of Montreal’s peacockish frontman is an evocative one, adding layers of meaning to emotionally exposed verse about romantic turmoil. But, set against the context of the band’s entire career, that sentence could serve as an all-encompassing mission statement.
NINTH STREET SUMMERFEST: OF MONTREAL
Where: Ninth Street between Broadway and Walnut
When: Wednesday, gates open at 6 p.m.
Over their career, Of Montreal have existed as purveyors of extraordinary musical beauty and a band likely never mistaken for strict realists. The carnival-like atmosphere of their live show has been well-documented: colorful, lavish costumes, an occasionally naked Barnes, video projection, random cover songs and celebrity cameos — such as the recent appearance of Susan Sarandon, who came on stage and paddled men dressed like pigs — are but a few elements that have shown up in a shows often compared to performance art.
Reviewing a 2008 gig, L.A. Weekly’s Jeff Weiss wrote, “If you were a 17-year-old, sexually confused kid on ecstasy, it stands within reason that Saturday night’s show … would’ve ranked as one of the greatest moments of your entire life.” In another review, Buzzine’s Nicole Pope said, “Just when The Flaming Lips thought they had the market cornered on acid-friendly performances, … Of Montreal has stepped up the glamour, the sex, the strange.”
Yet, for a band with much to remark about, perhaps the most remarkable feature about Of Montreal is that all the pomp and circumstance has rarely, if ever, distracted from their sound, the performance art never overshadowing what’s being performed. For more than a decade, the band has established themselves as renegades of psychedelic funk, honing a style that ingeniously sounds randomly cobbled even as it’s the product of Barnes and his bandmates’ careful, clever intentionality. No matter what styles or sounds bleed together in an Of Montreal song, their work features constants: breakneck beats, subversive grooves, shimmering synths, gliding guitars and melodies that reference The Beatles, Bowie and Prince, tunneling between the ears and setting up residence in the brain’s pleasure center. In other words, Of Montreal brings pure sonic bliss.
Based out of Athens, Ga. — which, at least for indie and college rock fans, has supplanted Nashville as Music City, U.S.A. — Of Montreal sprouted from the Elephant 6 collective, a record label and mutual admiration society that aided the rise of bands like The Apples in Stereo, Elf Power and Neutral Milk Hotel. Their debut, “Cherry Peel,” hit record stores in 1997, but of late, Barnes and company have dwelled at an especially sweet spot in the public consciousness, a spot solidified by the strength of their four most recent LP’s: 2004’s “Satanic Panic in the Attic,” 2005’s “The Sunlandic Twins,” the previously aforementioned “Hissing Fauna” and 2008’s “Skeletal Lamping,” in which Barnes sang as the character Georgie Fruit, a sexually ambiguous black performer.
The band has inspired a host of younger bands and helped pave paths for them — Weiss wrote, for example, that “MGMT would never have been promoted in the first place” without the release of “The Sunlandic Twins” — all while maintaining a premium on innovation. “Skeletal Lamping” was perhaps the most chaotic and challenging release of the band’s career, a recording that is less immediately accessible — and lyrically shocking at times — but holds its worth over repeated listens. “Family Noveau,” a documentary chronicling the band’s 2009 European tour, was released earlier this year, a film sure to be beautiful and, by its nature, somewhat realistic.
According to published reports, the band is working on a new release with a working title, “False Priest.” It will be fascinating to see where they find themselves on this record and in resulting shows because Barnes has long held the notion that success will not pigeonhole or pin down Of Montreal. “It’s really important because I feel like once it starts going downhill, it’ll be time to reassess things and change the game plan,” he told Paste magazine’s Steve LaBate in an especially candid 2008 interview. “I’ll probably still want to put out records, but I won’t be spending as much money and time on the performance. We probably won’t even perform anymore.
“No one can stay at the top forever, or else it’ll get boring,” he added. “It’s important for people to come up, do their thing and then be surpassed by someone new. And that’s how the scene stays fresh and exciting. I feel like right now, on an indie level, we’re up kinda close to the top, and we can’t stay there for very long. So now that we’re up there, we have a great opportunity to do something fantastic.”
Whatever values, visuals and vibe Of Montreal bring to bear on their Summerfest performance, the show is sure to be fantastical, the music fantastic, the experience one-of-a-kind.