The last time I saw Of Montreal was over a decade ago, at a modest festival in St. Louis, Missouri. The music hasn’t stuck with me, beyond a general impression of a ‘90s version of the ‘60s version of the ’20s, but I recall that the show’s “theatrical” element was limited to leader Kevin Barnes’ grease pencil mustache and, if memory serves, straw boater.
It’s become de rigeur to note two things about Of Montreal’s career path since then. First, that Barnes’ musical path has diverged from those of his Elephant 6 brethren––and with Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Magnum pulling a Syd Barrett and The Apples in Stereo’s Robert Schneider making Starbucks Nation safe for plodding rewrites of “Instant Karma,” who can blame Barnes for digging black music? Second, that the band’s live outings are now wildly costumed extravaganzas centered on Barnes’ androgyny and, per a recent New York magazine profile, “fearlessness.”
If this weekend’s shows at Terminal 5 are representative, though, what isn’t being said is that Of Montreal’s newfound stagecraft is often lazily executed and only sporadically, if badly, trippy. Sure, the rail-thin Barnes cut a dashing figure in his orange miniskirt, translucent windbreaker, and eye shadow. (Photos from recent tours would suggest that this is relatively tame attire for Barnes.) But outside of a Six Million Dollar Man styled slo-mo sequence, his stage moves ran to lax prancing and a wan, repetitive tambourine-to-hip shimmy––gender-play at the level of a frat-house prank.
On disc, many of Barnes’s conceits work just fine. The new False Priest, released the week of the show, bonds his pop-psych and plastic-soul sides together by way of consistently strong bass-lines, but he’s most valuable as a knowing (if prosy) lyricist, with an inside line on the ickier sides of devotion, sexual obsession, and their aftermaths.
It’s a relationship-cycle album for absurdists, from the mock-earnest monologues tucked into “Our Riotous Defects” (“When I first met you at the Al-Anon meeting / I was amazed how husky your singing voice was”) to the get-thee-behind-me litany (“You marginalize me, you sabotage me / You’re a bad thing”) of “Famine Affair.”
Except for the set-opening “Coquet Coquette,” which achieved rhythmic distinctiveness without overt soul or funk pastiche, little of the record’s charm made it over the lip of the stage. Lay some of the blame on the venue: Terminal 5 is an impersonal, echoey hangar that sucked most of the force and articulation out of an eight-piece band. That said, Barnes’s limited voice, a twee whine that struggled to ape Bowie circa Alladin Sane, hardly helped matters. As for the act’s vaunted theatricality: Well, yes, who doesn’t enjoy watching simulated sex with a stagehand wearing a pig’s head?
By the fifth time a gaggle of un-choreographed “dancers” wandered on stage in yet another set of masks and bodysuits to throw shapes at the audience, however, you could be forgiven for wondering if the hype around Of Montreal’s current incarnation is a sad comment on how little distance from stand-there-and-play indie norms it takes to make a band appear “wildly imaginative.”
Barnes and nominal opener Janelle Monae guest on one other’s new albums, and their common taste for pretension make them apt touring partners.
Monae’s set began unpromisingly, with an overlong video introduction in which the singer recaps the confusing sci-fi frame-narrative of her concept-album-plus-EP The Archandroid Metropolis. Fortunately, this Kilroy Was Here gassiness burned away about thirty seconds into “Faster,” a turbocharged reboot of Irma Thomas’ girl-group classic “Breakaway.”
Despite being a protégé and label signee of OutKast’s Big Boi, the hip-hop elements in Monae’s music are only one ingredient in a restlessly eclectic stew of nu-soul, musical theater, and, frankly, whatever the hell else she feels like throwing at a given track, here executed by a stripped-down three-piece band to which the lousy house sound was far kinder than it was to the headliners.
Monae herself is a preternaturally confident performer, with flashing eyes and anxious hand gestures that evoke the hungry, post-MGM cabaret personae of Lena Horne and Judy Garland, while her vocal chops rival those of any diva currently on the market. Her traditional reliance on singerly showiness as an expressive resource cuts against the “cybersoul” rhetoric that surrounds her releases to date, and it has other drawbacks as well: a lengthy, hyper-melismatic cover of the Charlie Chaplin-penned chestnut “Smile” ––see what I mean about eclectic?––audibly divided the audience.
The closing sequence of album highlights made up, and then some, for any lost momentum: A direct, rock-styled reading of “Cold War,” the inevitable, irresistible “Tightrope,” and “Come Alive,” a bass-heavy Violent Femmes/Cramps trifle that has precisely nothing to do with the rest of her repertoire––and which ended with Monae writhing on her back in the anti-dance my high-school punk friends called “The Worm.”
I wouldn’t bet on Monae throwing these kinds of curveballs, live or on record, for long: artistry aside, she’s gorgeous enough for utterly conventional stardom, and I can’t imagine it will be long before her label or business handlers rein in her stylistic and other indulgences in favor of more consistently chart-friendly forms. Cybersoul’s loss will be pop’s gain, but for now, catch her while she’s still making an ambitious mess.