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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Of Montreal: "Skeletal Lamping" Album Review

On Of Montreal’s 2007 album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, Kevin Barnes channelled his inner Bowie and introduced us all to a bizarre cross-dressing persona named Georgie Fruit. For a few amazing tracks, we got a taste of what Barnes’ “black shemale “ had to offer. On Skeletal Lamping, Georgie Fruit breaks free and largely runs the show. The result is a complex, difficult listen, that is equally confusing and amazing.

Skeletal Lamping opens with a skittery string synth that masks the darkness and diversity of the album (and song) with a more carefree, breezy feel. The song, “Nonpareil of Favor,” is one of the album’s weaker tracks, but it does an appropriate job of opening the album on a high note and then transforming it into something completely different than what most would expect. The majority of the song’s 6 minutes is filled with loud, distorted eighth notes that capture Kevin Barnes’ mental collapse into Georgie Fruit rather appropriately. It is not the most enjoyable of songs, but it serves its purpose.

By the time the second track rolls around, Barnes’ transformation is complete. The declaration of “I’m a motherf**kin’ headline/ oh, b**ch you don’t even know it!” doesn’t sound like Kevin at all, and that’s because it isn’t. “Wicked Wisdom” is Skeletal Lamping in a nutshell; a song filled with multiple movements, most of which don’t flow naturally from one to the next. The very fact that nearly every track on the album is filled with multiple songs and snippets makes it a difficult album to review or explain. Just know that what a song sounds like at its inception is usually completely different from what it will sound like by its end.

There are a few songs on the album which don’t follow this pattern, like “For Our Elegant Caste” or “Gallery Piece” which largely keep the same basic feel throughout their lengths. The former is almost a guaranteed single, and will likely be the first track that jumps out at most listeners. It’s a captivating track with an inescapably singable chorus, even if it is a bit discomforting (“We can do it softcore if you want/ but you should know I take it both ways”). “Gallery Piece” is a less-enchanting, bass-driven dance track that should fare better at a live show than it does here. As it stands, it can be a bit repetitive and is only worth listening to for its bridge.

“An Elaurdian Instance” brings back “I Was Never Young’s” trumpets with a triumphant entry of a first movement. The song (also known as “Our Last Summer as Independents”) is one of the album’s sunnier moments and describes what sounds like Barnes meeting his wife. But determining where Barnes ends and Georgie Fruit begins on Skeletal Lamping is quite an overwhelming task. Quite simply, it’s difficult to tell what persona Barnes is adopting on any song on the album, which only adds to the confusion of it all. There are moments where Barnes is clearly being himself, like on “Death is Not a Parallel Move” where he addresses Fruit, saying “The identity I composed out of terror has become oppressive now/ I must defy this dark assignment/ I’m over it now.” But for the most part, the lines are much less defined.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Skeletal Lamping is Barnes’ ability to tackle a large array of genres and styles without making the album seem disjointed. Funk, rock, disco, experimental rock, and 60s pop are all utilized in equally important roles, and it becomes clear after several listens that such a strange mixture of styles really only makes sense when given the complex nature of Georgie Fruit. As himself, Barnes may be pigeonholed into exploring the far reaches of indie pop, but as a black transexual with a history involving 70s funk bands and prostitution, he can indulge in every bizarre sound he’s ever considered.

There is much here that has reopened the doors to Kevin Barnes’ vivid imagination, doors that have seemingly been shut for the last few years. Fans of the band’s more inventive work (Coquelicot or The Gay Parade, for instance) will find Skeletal Lamping to be a welcomed addition to the Of Montreal catalogue. Broken down to its most basic forms, it combines the randomness of Coquelicot with the darkness and variety of Hissing Fauna, without sounding like anything the band has accomplished before. I must admit that my first several listens to Skeletal Lamping were accompanied by feelings of anger, doubt, and befuddlement. To put it bluntly, this is an album that is far too complex to be fully appreciated by a quick uninvolved listen. Navigating through the genres, 15-second songs, and schizophrenic storytelling can be quite challenging for someone expecting something as accessible and catchy as The Sunlandic Twins. But the challenge is well worth it when the album finally clicks, when you start to learn that each song has a purpose, that they all have a story to tell. Skeletal Lamping seems destined to become an album that will divide fans and critics alike. But for what it’s worth, I know what side I stand on, and I can’t help but dish out the praise for Of Montreal yet again. Skeletal Lamping is the real deal!

Key Tracks:
1. “Wicked Wisdom”
2. “An Elaurdian Instance”
3. “Triphallus, to Punctuate!”
4. “Beware Our Nubile Miscreants”
5. “Id Engager”

9 out of 10 Stars

1 comment:

Mark said...

Nice review Cale, and thanks for the track links. I look forward to getting this.