For more than a decade now, singer-songwriter Kevin Barnes has been a fountainhead of pop hooks, and his band, Of Montreal, has been the interpretive machine that's kept it all interesting. No matter the context, Barnes' melodies have always been the stars. They tend to be wonderful, inviting you to sing along with the force of a Queen anthem, or a Kinks ode to the British countryside. So, if this perennial indie band from Athens, Georgia, managed to break out as a mainstream pop force, it would make sense. And given the advance buzz for Skeletal Lamping, the band's ninth album, this seems to be its best shot yet. Until you listen to it.
From track one, the dense, new wave/thrash suite "Nonpareil of Favor," it's clear that Barnes doesn't give a damn about pop success. As the album unfolds, it sounds like he's deliberately mocking, doing everything he can to freak out Ryan Seacrest's radio audience. Skeletal Lamping eschews love songs in favor of erotic rallying cries, delivered by Barnes' alter ego, Georgie Fruit. Themes of sexual openness as a unifying force abound, promoting a type of esteem-building carnality that would make Alfred Kinsey proud. Much of the album segues together, but many of the changes are deliberately awkward, jarring the listener as the next song begins. And these wild shifts also occur within the songs themselves.
As a provocative, spelunking voyage into our sexual consciousness and a kaleidoscopic middle finger to mainstream pop, Skeletal Lamping is certainly intriguing. But without those classic Barnes hooks propelling it, the album would be a mere curiosity. Thankfully, there's no shortage of them — you could even argue that there are too many. These tunes are so crowded and schizophrenic, they'll only reveal themselves to the patient and demanding listener. Fantastic moments, like the electro-funk intro to "Wicked Wisdom," shimmer and fade, never to be heard again. Skeletal Lamping is ambitiously catchy and possesses strong lineage — the Ziggy Stardust role-playing, the Beatlesesque melodies, the piano groove from "Sympathy for the Devil," the inspired dissonance of the Pixies, Prince's come-hither falsetto — so there's a good chance it will blow you away. If you have the time, that is. (Polyvinyl Records)