Kevin Barnes, of Athens (Georgia), is the man behind Of Montreal.
His albums are whimsical collections of carefully-crafted pop music assembled
and sequenced in a way to compose a flamboyant psychedelic vaudeville
that occasionally mimicks the ridiculously hilarious style of the Bonzo Band.
The project shares many elements with the Elephant 6's oddly baroque bands
(Neutral Milk Hotel,
Apples In Stereo,
Olivia Tremor Control), but Barnes seems much more
interested in the texture and the dynamic, in the tradition of
the Kinks' The Village Green Preservation Society,
the Beach Boys' Smiley Smile, early Pink Floyd, and the Beatles'
Penny Lane, and his melodies are less sugary, less rotund, more
like a parody of Tin Pan Alley tunes (a` la
A childish feeling contributed to make Cherry Peel (Bar None, 1997) a
sort of fable set in a county fair
(In Dreams I Dance With You, Sleeping in the Beetle Bug,
Tim I Wish You Were Born a Girl).
Don't Ask Me to Explain,
This Feeling, You've Got a Gift
show the guy maturing musically from the nursery school to the high school,
and a couple of sophisticated nods to the Lovin' Spoonful
(Everything Dissappears When You Come Around, the jazzy
I Can't Stop Your Memory) almost save the album from its retro excesses.
The same retarded childhood is centerstage on
Bedside Drama: The Petite Tragedy (Kindercore, 1998 - Polyvinyl, 2006),
a concept album about a love story, an album that inflicts more
Jonathan Richman-esque jokes on the listener
(Happy Yellow Bumblebee, It's Easy to Sleep When You're Dead,
Cutie Pie) while indulging in Barnes' obsession with the Beach Boys,
show-tunes, marching bands and cartoon soundtracks.
The Gay Parade (Bar None, 1999) is musically more ambitious, and not so
much for the arsenal of instruments (which now includes toy pianos, typewriters,
whistles, pump organ, bells) and of guests (twelve altogether), but also for
the more dynamic combination of Barnes' favorite vaudeville/cartoon elements
that yields irresistible slapsticks such as
The Ballad of Nickee Coco, The March of the Gay Parade,
Fun Loving Nun, Old Familiar Way.
Among the whole absurd surrealism, most songs are actually humble, joyful odes
to everyday's life (Neat Little Domestic Life).
Horse And Elephant Eatery (Bar None, 2000) collects singles
("Niki Lighthouse," "The Problem With April," "Spoonful of Sugar")
and rarities, among which some of Barnes' best singalongs
(In the Army Kid, A Celebration Of H Hare,
Joseph and Alexander,
Fun Loving Nun, The Miniature Philosopher and Tulip Baroo).
The circus moves on and
Coquelicot Asleep In The Poppies (Kindercore, 2001) is a (lengthy) song
cycle that tells the story of Coquelicot's adventures in a dreamland.
Here, Kevin Barnes is helped out by
Derek Almstead (bass), Dottie Alexander (keyboards), Jamey Huggins (drums) and
others (cello, violin, accordion, theremin).
The effort is impressive, but the results are the usual hodgepodge of
Kinks (Let's Do Everything For The First Time,
Mimi Merlot, Butterscotching Mr Lynn)
and Syd Barrett (Penelope, Good Morning Mr. Edminton),
when not even Frank Sinatra (It's a Very Starry Night) or the Beatles
(Lecithin's Tale of a DNA Experiment That Went Terribly Awry,
The Events Leading Up to the Collapse of Detective Dullight)
and classical interludes (Coquelicots Tea Party,
The Hopeless Opus or the Great Battle of The Unfriendly Ridiculous)
try in vain to add value to a pointless retro collage.
Aldhils Arboretum (Kindercore, 2002) is equally catchy and vain,
sensible and predictable. No chances taken.
Kevin Barnes does almost everything by himself on
Satanic Panic In The Attic (Polyvinyl, 2004), and the result is
his most focused and varied collection yet.
Nothing is truly memorable and everything is mildly derivative, but then
that is precisely the meaning of his musical saga.
Disconnect the Dots, Lysergic Bliss and
My British Tour Diary the exact opposite of a musical revolution:
musical stasis ad libitum. But then maybe that's an art too.
The digital/electronic arrangements on
The Sunlandic Twins (Polyvinyl, 2005)
are lively and engaging,
almost the negation of the convoluted glitch-pop of his era.
Thus Barnes manages to entertain with
Requiem for O.M.M. and
Forecast Fascist Future,
despite the fact that none of them is particularly entertaining.
This is where Barned began to flirt with disco-music
(Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games,
I Was Never Young).
As usual, his is the art of being without being.
Kevin Barnes penned perhaps his most accomplished collection with
Hissing Fauna Are You The Destroyer? (2007), both musically
Setting existential depression (a lascivious one) to the beat of dance music, Barnes
repeated Neil Young's feat of setting existential alienation to the pace
of folk music.
Suffer For Fashion, the mutant Prince-like Labyrinthian Pomp
and especially the
12-minute The Past Is a Grotesque Animal are the pinnacles of
The transformation from the lo-fi bard of the early days could not have been
The disco-music element became even more prominent on Skeletal Lamping (2008),
and the arrangements were even more sophisticated (the seven-minute Plastic Wafers),
and the vocal similarity to Prince even more
obvious. However, he still found room for a Merseybeat-style ditty: the
playful orchestral fanfare An Eluardian Instance.
Meanwhile, his live show had resurrected the antics of glam-rock of the 1970s.
False Priest (2010), produced by Jon Brion, closed this trilogy in
a rather repetitive way, but also perfected his new persona, a
David Bowie-esque hybrid of
philosophical singer-songwriter, outrageous disco entertainer and decadent falsetto crooner.
The booming rhythm section is the common denominator for
the Merseybeat singalong Enemy Gene (a duet with Janelle Monae),
the rocking Coquet Coquette and
the funky I Feel Ya Strutter.
The five-song EP Thecontrollersphere (2011) harked back to Barnes'
acoustic folkish youth.
Barnes suddenly turned to prog-rock on Paralytic Stalks (2012), a wildly
self-indulgent and (by his standards) experimental work that
contains the 13-minute noise collage Authentic Pyrrhic Remission,
the seven-minute cacophonous symphony Exorcismic Breeding Knife,
and the random stylistic parade Wintered Debts.
Even the melodic songs are sophisticated constructs whose logic is difficult to
the nine-minute prog-funk-jazzy Ye Renew the Plaintiff sounds like Frank Zappa meets the Soft Machine;
and the catchiest of all, Spiteful Intervention, is actually a
deconstructed chopped-up atonal mutating musichall skit.
By comparison, Barnes sounds trivial and moronic when he turns to his
Prince meets the Beatles routine in Dour Percentage.
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