By Michael Harkin
As all English majors know, beginning a sentence with a prepositional phrase can be problematic. Of Montreal the Athens, Ga., band headed by songwriter Kevin Barnes proves an exception to this rule, and if it’s a beginning you need, look to Barnes, because it’s starting to look like his finesse in penning clever pop records is boundless. With the new Of Montreal full-length, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (Polyvinyl), Barnes takes nary a stray step on the path to pop bliss, assembling a coherent, front-to-back compelling listen the likes of which someone like Robert Pollard rarely realizes these days.
In a recent e-mail interview, Barnes spelled out the difficult circumstances surrounding its recording: the result is a few shades darker than the ecstatic, candy-colored dance pop on Of Montreal’s last two albums, Satanic Panic in the Attic and The Sunlandic Twins (both Polyvinyl, 2004 and 2005). The emotional depth and refined craft at work render Hissing the group’s most rewarding effort yet.
The disc’s tone isn’t foreign territory for Of Montreal. Barnes points out that "I’ve made records like Hissing before," and anybody would want to dance to the greater part of it, but sitting down to listen illuminates something obvious: the dude who wrote this was unquestionably down. The recording was born of a tumultuous year for Barnes. "I was going through this heavy chemical depression, and I was desperately trying to keep my sanity," he writes. No kidding one new track, "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal," a 12-minute swirl of anxious uncertainty, sets some serious melancholy right at the CD’s center. Elsewhere, as on the first single, "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse," cheery arrangements get paired with lyrics of the desperate sort: "Chemicals don’t flatten my mind / Chemicals don’t mess me up this time / Know you bait me way more than you should / And it’s just like you to hurt me when I’m feeling good." According to Barnes, writing this record allowed him "a way of constructively facing" his problems. It’s a good time for him to be on the upswing: riding the popularity of its last two albums, his band is the most successful it’s been since its start in 1997.
As a group once associated with the fabled Elephant 6 collective, Of Montreal dwelled for some time in a sugary subcategory of the American underground: Beach Boys and Kinks-influenced pop that Barnes speculates may have been "a bit too anachronistic" for most attuned to indie rock. It was 2004’s Satanic Panic that changed things. As to why he thinks this happened, Barnes gives some pretty precise speculation: "I was slowly getting into more dancey and electronic stuff, like Manitoba, Four Tet, RJD2, and Prefuse 73, and I wanted to create something that combined my ’60s and ’70s influences with a slightly more progressive and modern feel." More modern indeed: songs such as "So Begins Our Alabee" and "Disconnect the Dots" have graced many a college student’s stereo. "Labyrinthian Pomp" on Hissing reveals the depth of the stylistic change the track is informed by the Jamaican dub and ’70s soul Barnes found himself listening to while writing and recording. It seems apt that Barnes, as he mentions in a piece he wrote for Pitchfork, has been listening to departed disco progenitor Arthur Russell. In a sense, the two have similar strengths: like the late Russell, Barnes is capable of producing infectious dance-floor fillers and has shown himself brilliant at pinning down difficult, crippling emotions in a sweet, meticulously arranged pop context.
San Francisco plays host to Of Montreal for three nights this tour because, Barnes writes, when the band plays the city, it "really feels like it’s a communal experience and that we’re not just animals at the zoo." Animals they ain’t. An Of Montreal show is no joke. It’s a giddily passionate spectacle of the sort one rarely encounters as if the book-reading, scarf-wearing kids suddenly turned into flamboyant musicians throwing a light switchflickering disco party for the neighborhood, and it’s suddenly everyone’s birthday! Glitter, feather boas, and synchronized bustings of moves abound, and as the costumes change onstage, the band somehow continues to play. Its live brilliance will surely hit new highs this time, aided by the royalty check from last year’s Outback Steakhouse commercial that had an adaptation of the ensemble’s "Wraith Pinned to the Mist (and Other Games)."
What’s in store, exactly? "I don’t want to give anything away," Barnes writes, "but I will say it is going to be an event." If Of Montreal’s past appearances and the new, neighborhood theateresque video for "Heimdalsgate" are any indication, it’s gonna be a goddamn show, man. *
Thurs/1, 9:30 p.m., sold out
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF
Also Fri/2Sat/3, 9 p.m., $16
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF