At 9:30, Of Montreal's Kooky Kitsch

Kevin Barnes and his band revel in performance-art daftness.
Kevin Barnes and his band revel in performance-art daftness. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 11, 2008

Kevin Barnes had trouble on his mind Thursday at the 9:30 club. Didn't we all?!

But Barnes was the one with the microphone, fronting Of Montreal, a flamboyant and often absurdist indie-pop collective, not from Canada, but Athens, Ga.

"I'm in a crisis," Barnes warbled in the strangely titled "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse." (Most Of Montreal songs are, in fact, strangely titled.) He added: "I need help/Come on mood, shift/Shift back to good again."

The angst and anxiety that Barnes was articulating had nothing to do with global economics; the electro-pop song with the insinuating melody was about the singer's own chemical depression.

Not that it was anything like a downer itself: Belying the sobriety of the lyrics, "Heimdalsgate" sounded downright euphoric, all dance-inducing drum patterns, giddy synth lines and fizzy vocal hooks centered on, of all things, the word "chemical."

Of Montreal is deft at making darkness and disquiet somehow seem celebratory, whether Barnes is singing about inner tumult or troubled relationships, which he does with great frequency on "Skeletal Lamping," the band's new album. (It's scheduled for release Oct. 21.)

In "Gallery Piece," for instance, over an insistent disco-funk groove, Barnes sang: "I wanna be your love/I wanna make you cry/. . . I wanna hurt your pride/I wanna slap your face." The song had a truly bizarre effect: It simultaneously made you shake your head and your hindquarters, almost in opposition to each other.

Barnes also sang about sex and his (?) conflicted sexuality, often from the vantage point of Georgie Fruit, the songwriting persona he sometimes assumes. Fruit is either a she-he or a he-she. Or maybe both.

And just as Barnes toggled between voices (and genders), the dynamic songs shifted frequently, as well. There were dramatic, even jarring, mid-song changes in tempos, time signatures, chords, melodies and styles, which spanned disco, psych-rock, tribal drumming, synth-pop, noise-rock, Bowie-esque glam and a bit of Elton John piano balladry.

There was also a reference to a Queen power ballad: In "Wicked Wisdom," over a minimalist funk vamp that echoed Prince, Barnes sang, "When we get together/It's always, 'We are the champions, my friends.' "

When Of Montreal gets together onstage, it's always, well . . . daft.

The band's live shows aren't mere concerts; they're performance-art pieces that incorporate an endless barrage of visuals, beginning with the mascara Barnes smeared around his left eye, which had the effect of making him look like a glam-rock Spuds MacKenzie.

On this tour, the visuals also include (but are not limited to): Barnes faking his own hanging; videos of wig-wearing mannequin heads being walked, on the ends of long sticks, up a street; Barnes emerging from a coffin covered in shaving cream; psychedelic animation; Barnes getting his topless torso covered with body paint; and interpretive dancers moving around the stage while dressed as Easter Island statues, animals, "Deadwood" extras, beachgoers and golden pharaoh puppets.

The band's absurdist, arty impulses only added to the festive nature of the night, and by show's end, Barnes was positively beaming. What, he worry?


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