Throughout this decade, Athens, Georgia's Of Montreal has transmogrified from a mere indie-pop band into a kind of all-encompassing brand. Music has become but one aspect — the driving one, but still — of a much larger multimedia project, a development that reached a culmination with last year's Skeletal Lamping, the group's 11th album in as many years.
That's no sell-out accusation but a simple acknowledgement that, as Of Montreal's guiding presence, Kevin Barnes has become not simply an accomplished musician but a canny businessman: the indie world's Barnum. He shows a distinct understanding of the importance of growing the Of Montreal brand so that it never becomes stale or predictable, while ensuring that it continues to represent certain reliable core commodities: superlatively hyperactive pop, outrageously pansexual lyrics, increasingly extravagant stage shows, and artfully elaborate packaging.
Of Montreal unleashed Skeletal Lamping in many forms. There were, of course, CD and LP versions, with intricate die-cut packaging, making them ownable artworks. Then there was the album as tote bag, paper lantern, wall decals — everyday objects designed by Barnes' wife and brother and sold with download codes. Rather than simply buying intangible computer files, listeners bought tactile products that became physical manifestations of the music. Of Montreal's aim was to transcend the music-listening experience to occupy a slightly more central role in listeners' lives. They could read by the light of Of Montreal, carry stuff in Of Montreal, and even stare at Of Montreal on their walls.
This aspect of Of Montreal is as crucial as it is playful. It allows the band to move beyond the declining CD Age. As labels and acts struggle to figure out how to make money and remain relevant and as music becomes more digital and less physical, Barnes & Co. are ensuring their music retains as much physicality as ever, just in new and more functional forms. While the album as object d'art probably won't become the pervasive business model, it remains an ambitious undertaking by a group determined to shape its own destiny.
Extending beyond album packaging, the Of Montreal brand encompasses outrageous live shows. The group always has been a traveling carnival, mounting ever more elaborate shows with each tour. In the past, Barnes entered the stage via an enormous giraffe vagina, and he notoriously stripped nude for one set in Las Vegas. The Skeletal Lamping tour, however, may be their most extravagant to date: The group created an enormous diorama in which performance artists play out abstract psychodramas while the band jams and Barnes vamps. With this stage-within-a-stage, Of Montreal are turning the traditional rock show inside out, adding layers of meta-postmodernism and guerrilla-theater spectacle while first and foremost giving audiences an entertaining experience.
Of course, Of Montreal's branding endeavor has been and will be successful only insofar as the music behind the objects and the tours can sell itself. The group's uniquely haywire pop typically is at the very least interesting, its quasi-psychedelic passages jostling with Princely falsetto come-ons, Zombies hooks, glam stomps, electronic beats, and kitchen-sink production. Barnes writes and records the albums himself, with little to no input from the other members of the group, and he has become more exacting and eccentric over the past few years. On 2007's career-making Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, most of which he recorded in Norway during the months leading up to the birth of his daughter, Barnes mused on marital problems, prescription drugs, and his own geographic and emotional isolation — all rare glimpses into his personal life and even rarer stabs at relatively straightforward song structures.
By contrast, Skeletal Lamping (whose title comes from a Hissing Fauna song) sounds initially scattershot and aggressively shapeshifting. It's modular music, each track constructed from many different fitted parts. Songs move mercurially, changing fluidly and abruptly among unrelated passages. The catchiest passages typically play only once, declining to repeat as a traditional hook, and the songs flow into each other with no space between to differentiate them.
A musical patchwork, the album is devoted to outrageous self-definition: Barnes insistently presents himself as a nympho with numerous disguises, a lover like Prince, a sexosaurus like R. Kelly, a freak like Rick James. "We can do it softcore, if you want, but you should know I take it both ways," he explains on "For Our Elegant Caste." But that may be too modest: Barnes makes clear he takes and gives it all ways. Musically and sexually, no idea is too far-out to try.
Some critics and listeners decried Skeletal Lamping as a retreat from the personal exegesis of its predecessor, an album that in retrospect seems so intense as to be unsustainable. But reviews were bound to be mixed. The album seems specifically intended to be slightly confounding on first listen and exuberantly absorbing on fifth. Ultimately, it is a party album: If Barnes battled his demons on Hissing Fauna, Skeletal Lamping assures us he beat them and wants to celebrate. Each permutation of the album — whether as lantern, LP, or live show — is a victory lap.
Of Montreal, with Fire Zuave and Sugar & Gold
Sunday, April 26th
Doors open at 7 p.m.; tickets $20