Athens' Of Montreal expose a new concept
Of Montreal should not be a popular band. As anyone who has ever lived in a college dormitory can tell you, enthusiasts of fantasy, fairies, concept albums and French Canada are usually best stowed away in a basement-level room that reeks of beef broth, and conveniently forgotten.
Yet it's nearly impossible to find a musical act sweeter or more cuddly and gosh-darn lovable than the Athens-based pop outfit. The reason is that Of Montreal's fantasy world draws from an almost unbelievably pure and childlike innocence, removed from all adult pretense. Occupying the end of the fantasy spectrum distantly opposed to that of the often creepy "adult fantasy" realm, Of Montreal creates songs that possess the kind of imaginary abandon of a child lost in play.
Implementing this imagination is the band's new concept album, Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse, which has the same endearing combination of general nonsense and poetically incongruous verbiage of a toddler trying to remember a long story. In "The Peacock Parasols," for example, songwriter Kevin Barnes sings in a Ray Davies hiccup, "Oh I woke up in Divarrje pledging P.P. icicles and Lamar and I don't even know, heard about my love for fairy Coquelicot." This atmosphere of non-linear, non-explicit nonsense is established throughout the loose narrative of the album.
"The record takes place for the most part in a sleeping state of Coquelicot," says Barnes. "She goes asleep in the poppies and has all these experiences. In a way, it's just escapism — creating your own world. If you don't like your reality, then you can create your own."
While keeping with the practice of storytelling established in earlier Of Montreal releases, Barnes and company have worked to keep Coquelicot (pronounced koke-elly-ko) open to subjective interpretation.
"It's a super-complicated, convoluted story. For some reason it seems to detract from the music, when you're having to concentrate on the story or you're not even able to interpret the story for yourself because it's all laid out in front of you. So, instead of just writing the story out for people, we kind of wanted to avoid all that with this one," he says.
"So even though there is a story there, we didn't want it to be something that you would necessarily have to understand in order to enjoy the album. But it's pretty clear that there are characters that are coming up throughout the songs. And in the illustrations, you get to see the same characters. So it's fun — that idea that people can just create their own stories."
These lighthearted notions of fun and childlike innocence only account for half of the Of Montreal brain, however. The other half is interested in musicality, lush harmony and relentlessly unconventional melodic direction. True to form, Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies works to establish a complex musical mood.
"I'm always really conscious of avoiding musical clichés," Barnes says. "That's my least favorite thing in music — when you know where the song is going to go. When you know every chord that's going to follow. I'm really conscious about making it more interesting, and adding time changes and key changes, and stuff like that. So I guess that's the motivation for me to make things sound a little bit different."
This attention to depth is what keeps Of Montreal from being limited to simple sugary fluff or terminally arcane weirdness. Coquelicot is quirky without being overly cute, unusual without being esoteric or blindly experimental. There is an incredible focus at work in the album on creating a thoroughly enveloping environment. From the bizarre parade of cartoonish characters to the complementary cartoonish artwork, that includes a booklet of illustrations for each song (courtesy of Barnes' brother David), the album can at times feel more like a children's book than a work of music. And while the unmistakable harmonic stamp of the Beatles and the Beach Boys can be detected in the sonic element of Of Montreal, the band's overall presentational ethos seems to owe more to a literary tradition.
"For some reason, I'm really drawn to absurd literature," Barnes says. "I'm not really that into surrealism, but I love the writings of Roald Dahl. He's most famous for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willie Wonka and Matilda — children's books. But he wrote these amazing adult short stories that always have these twisted endings and are really surprising. I just really like that darkly humorous, absurd stuff."
For all its cheerful atmosphere, Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies does indeed have a definite thematic dark side that represents something of a departure from earlier Of Montreal work. Barnes explains this ongoing directional move as an exercise in playing with expectations.
"We were talking about how funny it is — we can get as dark as we want to because we've written 'The Happy Yellow Bumblebee,' and that will always give us the stigma of being this super-happy band or something," Barnes observes. "We're like, 'OK, now we're totally free.' I don't think anyone will ever be freaked out. Even the story on Coquelicot about the three-legged hyena cicadas that terrorize the small town and eat the children — it's always done with a sort of tongue-in-cheek narrative, so I don't think anyone will really be like, 'Oh, they've gone too far.' I hope not, at least. I hope they always know that it's just fun. It's just playfulness."
Of Montreal performs at Eyedrum Fri., April 27. For more information, call 404-522-0655.??