Friday, December 19, 2008

Of Montreal- Skeletal Lamping

The only thing I can say after listening to this album is, what the hell?? Keep in mind I am not averse to difficult albums or stylistic changes. But wow, is this album a mess. And not in a good way. Indie rock isn't exactly synonymous with sexiness, and while it's not averse to irony and kitsch, it's kind of mystifying to see someone take all of this to a ridiculous extreme. Everything about Skeletal Lamping makes me uncomfortable: that it's a concept album about Kevin Barnes's alter ego, a middle aged, African American transsexual named Georgie Fruit; that it expands on the nascent funk, R&B, and sex obsessed elements of Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? to an extreme; that it unsuccessfully attempts a breakthrough in songform by making songs into mini-epics and having most of them segue into each other.

I admire the bravery of this release but that doesn't change the fact that the whole thing comes off like something a friend might joke about while drunk. "Hey man, my alter ego is a black transsexual...and he's middle aged...and I'm going to write an album about that and have it be all funky and like Prince and stuff...awesome, right??" Maybe it's just me, but that's not really the thing I think of when I think Of Montreal. Sure, there was a lot of sex and a good deal of Prince-esque R&B with falsetto vocals on Hissing Fauna but it wasn't the main course and it was done tastefully. By contrast, Skeletal Lamping is downright pornographic and it's like an entire album of Kevin Barnes trying to be something he's not.

There are moments scattered across these 15 songs that almost equal Hissing Fauna, but that's all they are: moments. Certain bands can get away with this schizophrenic, mini-epic songwriting style. The Fiery Furnaces spring immediately to mind, but I'm also thinking about the last Sunset Rubdown album, Random Spirit Lover, which similarly played with form and some of the songs flowed into each other. But the Fiery Furnaces have been doing their thing long enough that they know the difference between something that rewards repeat listening and something that is, seemingly, changing arbitrarily and unnecessarily. After all, not every Fiery Furnaces song is made up of three or more smaller snippets. They develop ideas as they naturally demand, letting some songs bloom into sweet ballads and others crash down the mountain of ideas. Yet on Skeletal Lamping the moments of genuine greatness are watered down by a morass of needless repetition or jarring changes. I can really do without hearing Kevin Barnes scream for no reason or repeat "we can do it softcore" over and over. As for Sunset Rubdown, well, that album just gets better with each listen. I still don't have a handle on Skeletal Lamping and there isn't enough to latch unto to make me want to go back. On a side note, what's with putting 'Id Engager', the lead single, on the end of the album?? Furthermore, why is this song the single?? It's not catchy and honestly pretty terrible.

But let's put all of this beard stroking music critic stuff in the cupboard and talk about this matter as fans. As with Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea by the Silver Jews and Arm's Way by Islands, two other 2008 releases I wasn't keen on, the initial impression is simple-but-vague disappointment. You know how sometimes you get the new whatever by whichever band, author, movie director, etc. you love, and you experience it for the first time and then sit there going "well, that wasn't very good"?? That's exactly what the two above albums and this one leave me with when I listen to them. I don't like this one nearly as much Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? and even on its own terms it's sub-par. It's hard for me to imagine anyone but the most hardcore Of Montreal fans listening to this and thinking it's their best work.

Skeletal Lamping wouldn't be quite so bad if the music was good. I have a lot of problems with the concept and the lyrics--I can't overstate how stupid the Georgie Fruit 'character' is and how embarrassing the lyrics get--but the music is also weak. As I said earlier, there are some great moments here or there but the end result is an album that doesn't feel like either a set of 15 songs or an unified whole. Rather, it's a scattershot effort with precious few highs. Kevin Barners's idea was to have an album packed with all kinds of brilliant song-ettes that flowed into each other and constantly changed, but the actual product comes off like a sprawling mess with very little flow or logic. This idea can work but it has to be done well. I don't want to come off as a broken record, but these mini-epics made up of smaller songs just aren't that good. Moreover, while Skeletal Lamping is actually shorter than Hissing Fauna it feels much longer.

Writing this review was my way of coming to terms with and defining my dislike for Skeletal Lamping but even if my reasons don't sway you, the simple reality is that the only people who are going to like this album are those who adore this band and can overlook/enjoy its flaws. I really wanted to love this album, too. It seemed like the kind of thing I should by all rights love: "hey, it's Of Montreal doing the Fiery Furnaces!!" Unfortunately, the songform experimentation is mostly a failure and the 'concept' and lyrics are awful. Maybe the next one will pull it off. I just hope Kevin Barnes ditches the Prince worship and lame concepts and gets back to writing great songs. I can't believe I'm typing this, but Skeletal Lamping may well be the biggest let down of 2008.

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