Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The death of selling out? Of Montreal's Skeletal Lamping

Selling out may or may not exist, but "indie" music is a thing of the past. Once a label that referred to a bunch of bands mainly comprised of dorky white guys in their 20s loading barely functional Econoline vans to play small club shows across the country and recording guitar rock albums on shoestring budgets, the term has now become one of umbrella, encompassing jangly pop, grunge, metal, electronica, rap and even jazz. These days, "indie" is generally just the necessary stepping stone to mainstream acceptance, a precedence set in the late 80s and early 90s that has more or less infested today's current music scene - not an artistic lifestyle that requires doing promotion, performance, recording etc., with the most minimum of costs for maximum efficiency and creative output.

Case in point: Of Montreal, a flagship indie band (and honorary Elephant 6 member), had their show in New York this month feature a segment with leader/mastermind Kevin Barnes prowling the stage atop a fucking white horse.

Unless he's riding that horse between venues to save money on gas, I doubt that this is an example of what Mike Watt called "jamming econo."

Of Montreal caught my attention last year when Mr. Barnes wrote a long blog where he attempted to explain that "Selling Out Isn't Possible." The blog came in the face of some rather negative criticism for his/the band's providing a cheerful little jingle to Outback Steakhouse. I was fairly certain that Smashmouth effectively disproved Barnes' title argument ten years ago, but I held back contempt long enough to lay into his opening paragraph:
Are you a sell out? Yes. Don't let it bother you though, cause apparently I am also a sell out, and so are your parents and everyone you've ever known. The only way to avoid selling out is to live like a savage all alone in the wilderness. The moment you attempt to live within the confines of a social order, you become a sell out. Once you attempt to coexist you sell out. If that's true, then selling out is a good thing. It is an important thing. If we didn't do it, we'd be fucked, quite literally, by everyone bigger than us physically who found us fuckable.
At which point I closed the window and wrote off the man's career, much as I did Jack White's in 2006 when I learned, after reading a couple early interviews where he said he had no interest in selling out, that he had agreed to do a Coke commercial and attempted to soften the blow by calling it a "unique songwriting opportunity." A 60-second song for a giant paycheck sounded like a fairly commonplace opportunity to me. (Curiously, he hasn't made a good album since.)

Look, selling out - in moderation, not excess - doesn't bother me. Like Kev pointed out, almost everyone does it - my parents, your parents, your heroes, my heroes (They Might Be Giants, Mark E Smith, Stephin Merritt, Sly Stone, etc). It is a romantic thought to think that all art should be sacrosanct, untouchable by the commercial industry, and that true artists can't be bought at any price. But the truth is artists are looking for their paychecks as well; most of them just don't get them every couple weeks, which makes easy, plentiful money all the more attractive. I get angry when an artist who previously considered himself above the practice caves and tries to explain it away. I get angry when bands that have had mid-level exposure for under a year in the "indie world" are already doing promos (e.g. Hold Steady, Tapes 'N Tapes). And I get angry when artists who clearly sold out - for whatever reason, I don't care - write essays in attempts to prove that selling out doesn't exist because everybody else is doing it, and it's one of the few ways to make money as an "indie" band. So the practice exists but it doesn't? Bullshit.

Funny thing, though - I hadn't even listened to an Of Montreal record at the time. So it was with much trepidation I began investigating the band's recent career this past summer, beginning with an iTunes purchase of last year's Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? Why? I read a Tape Op article with Barnes, where he spoke of the inspiring creative process that goes into his records, many of which have been recorded by him alone, with a ridiculously simple setup onto a laptop computer. I was surprised to find many of the more recent albums (sadly, I haven't found a used copy of Sunlandic Twins, so I'm missing a link) to be adept spaz-pop explorations. I was unsurprised to find much of it not particularly remarkable - as a lot of merely enjoyable music gets labeled these days - but I hold particular affection for 2004's Satanic Panic in the Attic. The two "full band" records I got from a friend (Gay Parade and Adhil's Arboretum) irritated me to the point of never listening to either of them past their fifth song. But whatever the case, it was clear I had underestimated Barnes and his enterprise.

This year, all eyes - even mine! - are on Of Montreal. Their stage shows continue to get more elaborate and ridiculous and pull bigger crowds. Their last album was a confessional hit and had the song "Gronlandic Edit," a single that encapsulated all the angst, anxiety confusion and depression one could conjure up from the words "on my own," while melting it away with the most danceable, bassy groove imaginable. They sold out but ended up with more fans anyway. And even Rolling Stone are creaming their drawers over the new album.

And what about the new album, you ask? It's more than a little tied in with that whole "sellout" debacle, as Barnes let us know last year in his treatise: "I realized that the negative energy that was being directed towards me really began to inspire my creativity. It has given me a sense of, 'well, I'll show them who is a sellout, I'm going to make the freakiest, most interesting, record ever!!!'" That sort of naive kneejerk reaction would leave him open to all kinds of sarcasm and scorn from heavier critics, but my feeling on such ambition was simple - go make the record that way! I love music, and I want to hear what someone's version of the freakiest, most interesting, record ever is, always!

Well, Skeletal Lamping is not Trout Mask Replica, so it lost the bid for "freakiest, most interesting" etc. (You may wonder, is Beefheart's magnum opus really the high water mark for that kind of thing? The answer is unequivocally yes.) However, it is a unique album that will divide a lot of people's opinion and polarize the band's fanbase. It is the sound of someone trying desperately to not write anything approaching a hit single, or anything else that could be used to sell grilled beef. It's the product of somebody who has too many ideas too quickly. And, perhaps most importantly, it's the result of a music-lover having fun with music.

But is the damn thing any good? If you read every other fucking review on this album you'll find out it's about a black bisexual transsexual named Geordie Fruit, blah blah blah....in summation, the album allegedly centers around some preposterous sexually-charged themes that result in all kinds of plot lines and character developments throughout the album that are impossible to follow (at least for me), and therefore not really important to the music itself. But the idea is a wonderful distraction for reviewers who want to avoid the actual contents of the record - the kind of people who would have seen Bowie for Ziggy. So no answers derived from this fairly minor sideshow.

The truth is, Skeletal Lamping is both a daring, inventive album full of expert pop hooks and also a pretentious, bloated failure with not one memorable tune on the whole thing. You will read reviews that say one of these two things, but both hold.

How? Much of it has to do with the ADD construction of the individual songs. Barnes let himself run away with his imagination, building up 30-second to 2-minute chunks of songs and digitally pasting them together. Sounds like plenty of fun, but listening to it is both exhilarating and a chore. Since pop music (a game I assume Of Montreal is still engaged in) relies upon some degree of repetition for success (Phil Spector, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and Steve Reich have all relied upon this simple technique), the overt multiple-personality disorder inherent in almost all of Skeletal Lamping makes good and bad hooks vaporize from memory as soon as the iPod moves onto the next track. Perhaps Barnes' rapid-fire songcraft is meant to suggest the kind of sexual promiscuity the character whats-his-name is engaged in - why get attached to a cheap fuck if you have another one waiting in the adjoining motel room?

I don't give a fuck if songs are short and move on quickly to completely different type of song, which is why I'm an enormous GBV fan. But Lamping leaves you no time to breathe - once you hit play on "Nonpareil of Favor," the album expects you to strap in for the rest of the ride, segueing from one song to the next - hell, segueing in the MIDDLE of songs - instantly. So when I finished "Id Engager" today, I sat in silence for a minute or so, and realized I couldn't recall one hook from the near hundreds I had just listened to. Like cramming too much for a test too late in the game, I couldn't remember a damn thing.

However, I did remember that among the careening choruses, verses and bridges there were sections of sublime musicmaking, moments where I felt myself and Barnes relax for a moment to enjoy pure tunage, free of pretension or disconnected plots. Perhaps when he eased up on the 10 tracks of falsetto, or felt content to put in a blessed 30 seconds of instrumental interlude. Provocative sexual lyrics that mention metaphorical dick-sucking, real pleasure-pusses and crystal meth cooking will grate on those approaching this album with a bit of trepidation, but for me they provided respite from the churn of song after idea after fragment with moments of joyful irreverence and levity. Skeletal Lamping, consequently, is at its best and most memorable when its audible that Barnes is enjoying himself and not simply on manic songwriting overdrive.

A side note should be made that the production here is officially not doing Of Montreal any favors. Every record since Barnes went digital (Satanic Panic) has run the risk of sounding a tad cookie-cutter, with vacuous drum loops and midrangy synths often dominating mixes. Considering the spontaneity of his writing and recording, I suppose this is a necessary evil, but as far as I can tell, Lamping is the fourth record that exists within this sonic range. Even though I hear the band experiment with a couple more plugins on Logic here and there and hark, is that a real drum kit I hear on the third from last track? - it's baby steps to expand the current Of Montreal sound, which is becoming increasingly cauterized with each successive album. Danger! Multiple-album monotony has threatened everyone from AC/DC to the Ramones to Pavement to the Beastie Boys, and it reflects poorly in each case.

If Barnes' main mission in Skeletal Lamping was to make an album that doesn't sound like the work of a sellout, he should be congratulated - this album has nothing approaching a jingle (and very little approaching a single), and its sexually baiting lyrics will stop the unadventurous indie-curious crowd in their tracks. Call it attractive career suicide - at the record store, anyway, since I don't see people boycotting the group's onstage extravaganzas any time soon. Past that, however, his successes are questionable. I commend Barnes for trying something truly adventurous in the wake of unexpected mainstream acceptance, as well as extending this sense of adventure to the album's packaging. But stripping all pretense away, I care about the music. In this case the music is frustrating, unnecessarily complex, occasionally rewarding and too scattered to achieve classic status. This album will be panned, triumphed and misunderstood, and it deserves all three reactions. My advice? Don't write it off, but don't make it something it's not. I think time will come to acknowledge the album as one of pop music's more curious and infuriating experiments. That's right - pop, not indie.

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