Individual Talent

Of Montreal's 'The Sunlandic Twins' dances with its influences

Kevin Barnes' band Of Montreal is, as most articles will tell you, not of Montreal, the city. They're actually of Athens, Ga., and were loosely associated with Elephant 6.

A copy of the band's first record, Cherry Peel (Bar/None, 1997), has a little sticker on it that reads "Of Montreal is the band's name: file under 'O'." Seven albums later, Of Montreal no longer needs little stickers to guide clueless music store clerks--songs from their most recent release, The Sunlandic Twins (Polyvinyl), can be heard on two episodes of The O.C., and MTV. Of Montreal is, rather, of Barnes' variant musical influences, which, combined together, create indie rock aware of its predecessors and not afraid to show it.

T.S. Eliot argued in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" that the truly individual parts of a poet's work are not those moments when the poet forges new ground, but rather the moments when the poet holds up the traditions of those who came before. We have a "tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else," he wrote, proposing that "not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously."

Music criticism often can be guilty of this same "prejudice," as Eliot calls it; in seeking out the original pieces, the musical allusions that may be the very things that are making the songs unique are often neglected. The ability to artfully uphold a tradition within one's own style can be the mark of skilled craftsmanship. The Sunlandic Twins is different from previous Of Montreal records in that Barnes is drawing from a wider array of musical influences--and the influences are what make this record individual.

"In the very beginning, it was kind of more '60s influenced, and more recently I've incorporated some different sort of influences: The dance influence is there, the disco-y thing, and afro-beat music from the '70s, and Prince," said Barnes as the band drove to Little Rock, Ark., for a stop on their current tour. "So I think now it's just kind of like a larger pallet that I'm using."

The "larger pallet" allowed Barnes to make his most upbeat record yet: "So Beings Our Alabee" uses drum machine and electronic rhythms reminiscent of mid-career Cure mixed with disco-tinged guitar, and on "The Party's Crashing Us," the Prince influence shines through on Barnes's vocals. "We're kind of going through a different phase right now," explained Barnes. "Like if you're an old Of Montreal fan, it's worlds away from that in some senses, and especially the live presentation of it is different--it's very high-energy fun."

The Prince element shows up in other places as well, in the bass lines of "I Was a Landscape in Your Dream," and "Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games." Even the liner notes say the record was "produced, arranged, composed, performed, engineered and mixed by Prince Kevin Barnes." Lyrically, though, the influences change: Imagine Prince dance beats set to lyrics with references to literature and Greek mythology, and you have The Sunlandic Twins. "We'll have bizarre celebrations / I'll play the Satyr in Cyprus, you the bride being stripped bare," sings Barnes in "Wraith Pinned to the Mist," "I've been a gloomy Petrarch with a quill as weepy as Dido," in "So Beings Our Alabee." Eliot would be proud.

Explained Barnes, "I always thought it was really funny when you're reading poetry, and a lot of poets tend to make these really obscure references. Obviously, Greek mythology is not very obscure, but if you just kind of pick some strange story, like some strange little detail of some myth, and then put that in your poem, I thought that was really kind of funny, and I'm sort of parodying that in my lyrics ... it's just a little bit more ambiguous and intellectual. But I don't pretend to be an intellectual."

Rather than sounding intellectual, Barnes' songs sound fantastical: the stuff of well-imagined other worlds mostly present in children's literature. Surreal, but not frightening; free-associative, but actually about something. "A lot of times, it will sort of be a stream of consciousness sort of experience where I just get into a certain state of mind and write without editing myself, and then go back and take out bits and replace it or move things around a little bit," said Barnes about writing lyrics. "But I try also to put some personal matter in there as well, so that it's not all just fantasy or whimsy, so it has more of an impact on a personal level."

"When I met you I was just a kid / hadn't built up my defenses / so I gave my heart completely / Vaseline over the lenses," sings Barnes on "Requiem for O.M.M.2," one of the more old-style Of Montreal songs on the record; '60s-style pop harmonies and guitars flash between speakers, creating a sort of physical reverb. It's this kind of clever rendering that first drew attention to the band: lyrics full of images and strange stories, and music that, in its most referential moments, becomes individual. Even though Of Montreal is a band, Barnes does the recording mostly on his own.

"I have some idea going into the session what I want. But then often it sort of changes character and personality during the recording process," said Barnes. "I usually have a pretty strong sense of what I want, but then I kind of like to fight against that sense, because I feel like if I just do what seems natural then it might be boring, or it might just be cliché. So often I'll try to think, OK, how can I mix this up, how can I destroy this song, but still keep some sort of sense of the song so it's not totally massacred to the point of not being able to recognize anything. ... So I'll start with something--an acoustic guitar, a piano--and then I start adding things and taking things away, and hopefully in the end, it's a pleasing experience to listen to the song."

And it is: layered vocals, textured instrumentation, rich lyrics and various influences combining in "peculiar and unexpected ways," to quote Eliot again. It's interesting music, and if it is true, as Barnes sings in "Forecast Fascist Future," that "boredom murders the heart of our age," we need all the interesting music we can get.

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