Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Records In Review: Of Montreal--Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

Weirdo bands are doing surprisingly well in the charts these days--what gives?

Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destoyer? is the nth album by Of Montreal, the vehicle of Athens, Georgia pop eccentric Kevin Barnes, who seldom manages to go a calendar year without an album release. Barnes is an incredibly hyperactive musical personality—allmusic refers to his style as “euphoric pop,” which is as good a single-word description as any—with a particular obsession with '60s stuff: Beatles obviously, but there’s other things in there as well, often filtered through early-'80s electronic sounds and aesthetics. He’s magpie-like rather than organic in his songwriting methods, but weirdly enough it does seem to translate into a quick-witted style all his own. Lyrics are often laugh-out-loud funny, even as they are here painfully autobiographical. Some of OM’s albums have been full- or partial-band, but this one’s pretty much Barnes with some added help.

I’ve never heard more than bits and pieces of the band previously, but the miracle of modern technology means that even the physically and intellectually laziest of us can easily do a little background research. My impressions: Hissing Fauna is pretty outlandish, even for an Of Montreal album. Its general sound-world certainly has similarities to that of 2005's Sunlandic Twins, but it's a much more extreme version of, with lots of weird synth sounds and samples, jarring, oddly-produced and mixed drum beats, and garish multi-part backing vocals. Sonic contrast and disturbance, more than ever before, is at the heart of the thing. Perhaps fittingly, HF lurches all over the place on the songwriting front, drawing ironic inspiration not only from the usual '60s sources but also disco, funk and electronics-heavy new wave. The overall impression is very different from that of the highly-regarded The Gay Parade (1999), a fluid, whimsical, Beatley concept album, or even the tougher, straight-ahead pop of 2004's Satanic Panic In The Attic. If I had to generalize, I'd describe the overall atmosphere as one of benign claustrophobia.

Hardcore fans of the band are of course welcome to set me straight, but I get the feeling that Hissing Fauna, while impressively put together, isn't OM's finest hour. As the album progresses, it loses the plot somewhat in a tangle of self-indulgence and plain weirdness. Barnes has always been extremely clever and no mistake, but it's the kind of cleverness that hits you over the head with a spiked club rather than sidling up beside you. And during those times when his self-restraint is lacking, well, let's just put it this way: you're glad for his sake that he's not in the room.

The first half of the album is extremely good in terms of both material and flow, the latter being no mean feat with songs as diverse as this lot. "Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse" channels early OMD (manic version) and is the most immediately appealing of the outright pop songs; it's all keyboards, drum machine and sudden changes. Opener "Suffer For Fashion" is also extremely catchy and one of the few guitar-based songs on the record. "A Sentence Of Sorts in Konigsvinger" (yes, Barnes' ex-wife is Norwegian) has a ridiculous funky-disco chorus that reminds me of "Rock The Boat"--one of those songs that would surely suck if it wasn't so charming. "Sink The Seine" and "Cato As A Pun" are effective chorus-free asides that help to lend the album an episodic feel.

It's the latter half where things start to come unglued. The spoken-sung "The Past Is A Grotesque Animal" starts out very well, like a faster-paced New Order, but the thing goes on as a repetitive dance groove for 12 frickin' minutes, the last 6 or 7 with tres irritating ooh-ooh-ooh backing vocals. Listen to the first 2:45, then fast-forward. "Faberge Falls For Shuggie" and "Labyrinthian Pomp" are both cases where Barnes' genre-quotational style sounds more like a piss-take, the sort of thing you'd expect from someone like Ween (admittedly, this isn't the first time similarities between the two bands have arisen: see, e.g., the arch "Forecast Fascist Future" from Sunlandic Twins). The same kind of thing can be heard in the vocal delivery on the much better death-disco-ey "She's a Rejecter" as well as "Bunny Ain't No Kind Of Rider," the album's hilarious comic highlight.

Despite the reservations, there's a lot to like about Hissing Fauna, and the album certainly encourages me to explore Of Montreal's back catalogue more thoroughly. An uneven but always surprising listen. Recommendation: 40% impressive, 40% fun, 20% irritating.

mp3: Of Montreal--"Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse" (from Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?)

mp3: Of Montreal--"Faberge Falls For Shuggie" (from Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?)

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