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Of Montreal is in a funk

Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes pours his darkness and anxiety into the album’s 12 songs with a funky ebullience like Edvard Munch on an ecstasy bender. By Del Engen
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Of Montreal’s new album, “Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?” finds band leader Kevin Barnes moving briefly to Norway, where he loses then more or less recovers his sanity for our entertainment.  Barnes pours his darkness and anxiety into the album’s 12 songs with a funky ebullience like Edvard Munch on an ecstasy bender. 

In 2004, Kevin and his wife Nina found that they were soon to be parents, so they relocated to Nina’s hometown of Oslo, Norway to avail themselves of government health benefits.

The dark winters of Norway took their toll on Kevin, and he found himself at loose ends.  “Living in Norway, with nothing really to do and no friends really,” says Kevin, “it was a bit of a culture shock going through all that.  I think that because of the dramatic lifestyle change, I went through this really intense depression … It was really difficult to navigate through and even keep my head above water.”

He combated this by setting his dark personal experiences against a backdrop of relentlessly upbeat music.  “…I tried to sort of uplift my life with sound,” he says. 

The group (who are not, it must be noted, from Montreal) emerged from the late-’90s Athens, Georgia musical co-op The Elephant Six Collective.  The collective liberally intermingled, forming such other bands as Beulah, Neutral Milk Hotel and The Apples in Stereo. 

Of Montreal’s sound has evolved and matured since their Kinks- and Beatles-inspired early years.  Their debut album was goofy dada whimsy — all songs were ostensibly about Dustin Hoffman (e.g. “Dustin Hoffman Does Not Resist the Temptation to Eat The Bathtub”).  Others followed suit, with largely acoustic, tightly harmonized songs about fanciful characters.

Today, they continue a trajectory started two albums ago, with Barnes whipping up the entire album as sole songwriter.  It also continues the same off-kilter electronic dance party cadences.  Despite its permeating paranoia, this album is hookier than a Velcro pirate, and improbably fun.

“Suffer For Fashion” begins the album with a coo from their baby daughter, then launches into a bouncy ditty about “vicissitudes … boxing our heads.”  The first four songs cross fade into one another with only an index point on the CD to warn you.  Liquid guitars and buzzy synthesizers fade in and out as the songs intersect. 

The next few songs are where the rubber meets the road.  “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse” begins, “I’m in a crisis, I need help — c’mon mood-shift, shift back to good again…”  Barnes yelps and pleads with his neurotransmitters, “come on chemica-uh-oh-oh-oh-oh–oh-als” like Buddy Holly with a panic attack. 

Last year’s album, Sunlandic Twins, was named for a dream Nina had in which she and Kevin were the sole inhabitants of a planet called Sunlandia.  Kevin is an obvious admirer of the Eno-Bowie collaborations in his song “Gronlandic Edit,” which recalls Bowie’s reclusive retreat to Berlin after his movie “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”  Now, Kevin is exiled from Sunlandia: “We fell back to earth like gravity’s bitches / Physics makes us all its bitches.”  Indeed.

Norwegians have a curiously dour self-perception, especially evident as the winter months creep in.  In a cafe in Bergen last fall, a girl I was chatting with suddenly put down her beer, leveled her gaze and asked solemnly, “What do you think of Norwegians?”  Before I could answer she replied sardonically, “We’re a cold people in a cold country,”  then returned to her cheery, friendly self.

Barnes reaches his own cold nadir in “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger,” where he tells it straight:  “I spent the winter on the verge of a total breakdown while living in Norway…” 

The centerpiece of the album is Barnes’ 12 minute catharsis “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” an unrelenting culmination of his anxieties which he purges by the end of the song in a post-punk, totally wired frenzy worthy of The Fall.

With that darkness more or less behind him, he is  free to indulge his funk.  A standout from these remaining tracks is “Faberge Falls for Shuggie,” an homage to Shuggie Otis, the psychedelic soul brother who wrote “Strawberry Letter 23” among others.  Shuggie was also a sometime side man to Frank Zappa, and that’s the sound that Barnes taps into here, something like Sly Stone produced by Godley & Creme era 10cc.

Some of these seem to be a bit of word salad taken out of Eno’s early songbook.  Labyrinthine phrases with subtle sexual innuendo exist largely as a substrate for Barnes’ Prince-ly falsetto to wrap around lines like, “You can test my talons against your cursive body, but the controller sphere has disappeared and it hurts.”

Pulling together Of Montreal band members to record and tour is no small feat, since they live in Norway, Sweden, Georgia and California.  Still, they are presently mounting an exhaustive tour featuring several glamorific costume changes (Kevin dons a 10-foot tall dress at one point), projection screens and assorted visuals. 

Check their website for the tour details: http://www.ofmontreal.net.  “Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?” is available on Polyvinyl Records.