by Matt Ealer
Of Montreal is wending its way up the seaboard, to Philly and Boston and New York this weekend-and yes, the exquisite Janelle Monae is opening, so get there on time. The band is doing a looparound of Michigan and Wisconsin and Chicago and Minneapolis, until they pop off to Dublin and Glasgow and London and Paris and the rest of Europe next month. In late October and early November, they’ll finish America off and arrive on the west coast. Herewith, an early report.
After years working in the milieu of the indie band switching off instruments for songs and parts of songs in order to make that infinitesimally perfect, precious little sound toward which the spirit moves, this iteration of the Of Montreal traveling carnival is an actual band.
Ringmaster Kevin Barnes played an instrument exactly once, sitting behind the piano a little over halfway through to tease new long-player False Priest’s moribund-Bowie “Casualty of You” melodrama, with little stabs pointing at that song’s piano trills and bellowing out a screed about how “even this ghetto world that has nothing doesn’t want me.” He did this shrouded and alienated from the crowd, only appearing on a large projector screen dressed up like an obsolete tube television, in grainy black and white. For the rest of the show, he was free.
As in, when the band twacked into the heavy downbeat of “Crazy Girl” after the affected cracked-sunshine Playskool opening, he actually started prancing around the stage while rapping in the way something like New Edition would have tried to rap in the early 90s, except purposefully. A willful naivety that sells the idea that this character would pick a girl up at an Al-Anon meeting and then be surprised when she threw his beta fish out the window.
One might think the New Wave crunch of “Famine Affair” would scream for Barnes to strap on a Gibson SG like he did while churning out Kinks covers for an equally roiling sea of bright young things at the Pitchfork Music Festival two years ago. But he didn’t, standing instead in a stark spotlight, arms raised in somehow shamanistic, defiant heartbreak.
He would make this pose again when the first of the Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? material clicked over. “She’s A Rejecter” was always the emotional sucker-punch of that record (even after you’d already endured the 10-minute space opera psychodrama of “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” and thought you’d mined every last cranny of Barnes’ fractured psyche), but, here? With him standing in that spotlight like some fascist ruler? With strobes strategically blasting at the “but I can’t, I can’t, I can’t” line, inducing seizures and fits? With an honest-to-God funk band-and it became clear by this song that the band was not just in some shabby drag, especially the drummer, they had gestated into a thing that could have worn James Brown in his prime down-thrashing like a well-oiled machine behind him? The thing became a revelation.
About those strobes, the production values came to the fore in the presentation. Around “Satanic Panic in the Attic,” when things started to get weird for this band, you could see them at a relatively tiny room like Falls Church, VA’s State Theater and it would take on the affect of some community theater troupe taking on a Schoenberg opera with some whack ideas from an interpretive dance studio. The house lights always seemed turned way up, you could see the ladder Barnes stood on as he appeared to be impersonating a Christmas tree or a gigantic pope. The changes of costume always peeked out of the top layer. It almost seemed purposefully ramshackle.
Here, in the dim and din of a genuine “rock venue,” Washington DC’s 9:30 Club, and with a cutting-edge video set-up sending live feeds of the band in action to large projector screens behind them, touched by digital effects to fit the songs’ demands and accompanying commissioned video works, it felt very different. The costumes were of a higher quality, they seemed more coherent, to flow with each other and the music. Barnes rode out on a human camel constructed of various dancers, making a comment on his own infamous near-naked white horse ride on stage while touring the previous “Skeletal Lamping” record. He came out in a dull gold Batman cowl that formed a sun out of his head. There were silver wings on dancers that could’ve passed Circe de Sole muster and looked like they would have cut you if you stepped in their path. The “History”-era Micheal Jackson world peace coda of “Do You Mutilate?” was delivered by a bulbous, towering robot out of a 50s scifi fantasia that moved with stunning (if robotic) alacrity. While the older version may have been technically closer to what went on at a Sun Ra Arkestra performance in their prime, this was closer to the rapturous praise you read of same in deliriously remembered accounts.
Now, this is not all some narrative of Aristotelian telelogy. Do we want or need a band that started as the most Beatles/mod-squad-leaning of Athens, Georgia’s mid-90s Elephant Six music collective to smooth it out so much that it starts to sound as if they could be backing George Benson? On a Solange-less “Sex Karma,” the purple bed of 90s Prince funk felt more warm and pillowy than ass-shaking, and Barnes seemed to lean on it as he listlessly moved through the lyrics with a frog in his throat. The crowd, most of which was unfamiliar with the material that wouldn’t get an official release until today, began to feel groggy, bamboozled.
This all fell moot by the encore, though. After playing one last “Hissing Fauna” favorite, the band ripped into a precise, loving medley culled from Micheal Jackson’s Thriller, moving confidently from the title track to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and finishing with “P.Y.T.” with Kevin not sarcastically yelping “hee-hee’s” as one might expect the leader of an literary indie-pop outfit to do.
Earnestly, reverently singing every word, hitting every note in a hot pink headband, white cashmere hoodie, black sparkling miniskirt, and hot pink tights. It was a statement on pop culture, race, fashion, celebrity and gender that no other band of this ilk would dare to make but at the same time it wasn’t. Or it didn’t matter that it was. Because when they finished and he raised his arms once more and thanked the crowd, it was obvious that they felt like they were getting away with something. They just nailed a bunch of songs that everyone in the universe loves but for a crowd that still, due to its own snobbish baggage, was blown away by the juxtaposition. They were reveling it. And so was everyone else.
Matt Ealer fetishizes the archetype.