Of Montreal freaks Middle America with Skeletal Lamping

Three years later, Of Montreal still can't shake the shadow of that Outback Steakhouse commercial.

The long-standing Athens band, an outgrowth of the Classic City's now legendary Elephant 6 indie-rock collective, made a mint and a muddle by selling the song "Wraith Pinned to the Mist (and Other Games)," from its 2005 album, The Sunlandic Twins, to Outback for a television ad.

But selling a song to the workaday steak chain hardly seemed like an ideological faux pas. Especially considering that everyone from Iggy and the Stooges to the Shins have allowed their songs to be used in commercials for products ranging from cars to vacation cruises.

Of Montreal didn't just license their song, though, they sold the melody, which was then chopped, neutered, rearranged and turned into a carnival-esque soundtrack for the Outback dining experience. It was the first indie-rock song to become a true commercial jingle, and to this day the group's blog (www.ofmontreal.net) still receives whiney comments from disapproving fans every time the commercial airs.

"People definitely didn't respond well to it," Kevin Barnes offers with a cautious and self-effacing chuckle.

"Now when people hear the song they think about steak, and maybe they're vegetarians and don't want to think about steak," he laughs. "For a long time we wouldn't even play it live because, honestly, I was embarrassed. We would finish the song and inevitably someone would yell 'Outback!' I had this feeling of ... 'Oh... goddamn it!' It really messed up my mind for a while, but now it's just a footnote in the song's life. It doesn't affect me as it once did."

But the backlash from the commercial did leave an impression on Barnes that affected his songwriting. Of Montreal's latest and most complicated album, Skeletal Lamping, (Polyvinyl) intends to exorcise the demons brought on by selling the song's soul to the steakhouse.

After the commercial appeared, cries of "sellout!" pushed Barnes to reconsider his position. He decided to take some unprecedented artistic chances to save Of Montreal's good name. "I wanted to prove that I wasn't a sellout and that I still have value as a writer; that I still have a wild imagination and that I am capable of doing something fantastic," Barnes says. That sense of ideological motivation culminates in Skeletal Lamping.

The new release is the group's most challenging and sexually unrestrained to date as Barnes sporadically hands the reins over to his gay, black, transgender alter-ego, Georgie Fruit. Ironically, the record will also introduce Of Montreal to Wal-Mart America, because Skeletal Lamping is the band's first release to make its way out of the indie record store circuit and in to such big-box chains as Target and Wal-Mart.

But is middle America ready for Georgie Fruit?

From the opening keyboard whiz, amphetamine beat and falsetto squawk, Skeletal Lamping takes a sexed-up freak ride through Barnes' mind that unfolds in a jumble of thoughts, ideas and disconnected narratives. Songs jump from fugue-like movements of synaptic disco, funk and oddball pop and plow headlong into schizophrenic references to Prince, the Beatles and Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie. But these influences never reveal themselves for longer than a few fleeting moments. As a result, the album emerges as a mass of connective tissue that remains unbound to any major structure.

The title refers to an archaic hunting method in which a wooded area is flooded with light, sending all of the hidden inhabitants scurrying into the light for easy pickings. As the name suggests, Skeletal Lamping illuminates a myriad of Barnes' hidden musical ideas, and sends them scattering like beasts big and small.

"Nonpareil of Favor" provides the blueprint for the album's labyrinthine nature. Barnes' soulful yowls amble over electronic beats that move swiftly before slamming into a wall of guitar noise and drone that then transforms into a patchwork of percolating vocal chirps and cyclical rhythms.

"An Eluardian Instance" is the exception to the album. It more closely resembles the twee-pop traditions of the group's past. But when placed next to the epic weirdness of "Women's Studies Victim" or the Technicolor blast of the album's first single, "Id Engager," the song feels passé by comparison.

Skeletal Lamping is a strange album indeed, and its imprecise angles were foreshadowed with a post on the band's MySpace blog where Barnes offered an early explanation: "... very few things pique our interest while they are working as we expect them to, things are far more interesting when they are not working. Shocking people though, just for the sake of it, is so mundane ... in most contemporary songs, you can basically finish the artist's sentences, musically and lyrically. I wanted to make an album where that was not possible."

Skeletal Lamping does just that, but to say that it doesn't work misses the point. The album works overtime. It takes shape as a seamless collage of unorthodox changes, jump cuts and sexually charged art pop that underscores Of Montreal's typically bright, uplifting pop tones with whimsy and surrealism.

"I wanted it to mirror my psyche," says Barnes. "I like the idea of never having a straight narrative."

The voice in "Women's Studies Victim" reels through a tale about a mannequin that cheats and opens her eyes before shifting into a sultry tale of seduction by the kitchen sink while the song flows from hook to hook. Such changes in direction define the record. It's a strange, stream-of-consciousness trip pieced together like a dream. Listeners can process bits of information and interface with the songs on multiple levels, yet the illogical pace of the recordings defies any attempt to place them into the context of day-to-day, waking life.

The album also finds Barnes delving deeper into the Georgie Fruit persona that he introduced with 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? Georgie is a gay, middle-aged, black she-male who Barnes insists is an ambivalent creature less alien than Ziggy Stardust and more reflective of the universal human spirit.

The concept, Barnes says, is his way of unlocking a side of himself that transcends race, gender and history. "While I was making Skeletal Lamping, I wanted to have no connection to any economic, social or psychological situation," he says. Georgie's uninhibited voice first speaks up on Skeletal Lamping in the song "Wicked Wisdom," and plays a large part in the group's live shows. Above all else, Georgie Fruit gives Barnes the opportunity to perform.

"I bring a much more exaggerated Kevin Barnes to the stage than what I am in my normal life," he says. "There's no repression whatsoever and I really hope that people would also feel that coming to an Of Montreal show gives them that same opportunity."

Onstage, Barnes handles guitar and vocal duties while peeling through a parade of costumes. The rest of the band is rounded out by Bryan Pool, aka the Late B.P. Helium (guitar), Dottie Alexander (keyboard), Jamie Huggins (drums/electronics), Davey Pierce (bass) and newcomer Ahmed Gallab (drums).

The artwork associated with the music has also captured a lot of attention.

In conjunction with the album, the group released numerous functional art objects. They include a hanging Chinese lamp, T-shirts, tote bags, decals, a massive horse poster decorated with a collage, and various bits of small ephemera that convey the album's spirit. Barnes' wife, Nina, and his brother David – the latter of whom provides the group's signature album covers – designed the collection.

The CD's packaging is an intriguing objet d'art, as well. It doubles as a fold-out paper sculpture of a strange plant/microbe organism armed with several mouths and a hypnotic mess of primitive paisley markings. "The whole thing is something we've had as a dream for a long time. In the back of my mind I was thinking, 'Things this cool just don't happen,' but Polyvinyl was on board from the beginning and totally made it happen," Barnes says. The willfully nonlinear approach can come across as pretentious or even too convoluted for some fans of the group's less fractured material.

The album hit the streets via Polyvinyl Records on Oct. 21. Upon release, it shipped 100,000 copies to retailers around the world, including the big-box chains. By indie standards, that's pretty huge, and it's a significant jump from Hissing Fauna, which shipped a paltry 30,000 copies when it was released in January 2007.

Posting such big numbers amid the likes of Wal-Mart and Target brings Of Montreal closer to the all too familiar cries of "sellout" once again. More importantly, Wal-Mart caters to rural America's strong conservative element. These are the same people who banned Sheryl Crow's 1996 self-titled album because she sang about people killing each other with guns bought at Wal-Mart. What the heck's going to happen when they get a load of Georgie Fruit?

Barnes remains undeterred.

"The positive thing about getting your record into Wal-Mart is that not every city has an independent record store, like Wuxtry or Criminal in Atlanta," he says. "When I was in high school in south Florida we didn't have a record store where you could get indie records. You had to go to the mall. I think it's amazing that Wal-Mart would even carry Skeletal Lamping, but it doesn't change anything on our end. We're not going to change anything to appeal to middle America, but I am proud of the record and I would like as many people to hear it as possible."