Of Montreal, Janelle Monae
Saturday, September 18
Better than: Any music currently being made by actual teenage girls.
In a characteristically intellectual/saucy dis on his new album False Priest, Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes dismisses someone (perhaps himself) with a pat, “You fetishize the archetype.” The traditional alt-rock archetype obviously concerns the weird, sensitive youngster who feels alienated from their peers, sinks into the world of left-of-center art, and emerges with a burning desire to Prove Them All Wrong. It’s pretty rare that this model works out so that a 30-something Georgia-based indie rocker turns himself into the sassiest teenage girl performing in pop music today, but Of Montreal are special in a lot of ways.
Dressed in bright orange tights and a complimentary miniskirt, a headband, some rather becoming make-up, a totally awesome glittery sweatshirt and plenty of aerobics-derived dance moves, Barnes led his cruiseship-by-way-of-Noh-theater-clad bandmates and various dancing man-pigs, skeleton midgets, and Easter Island-via-Strongbad looking dudes through a set heavy on Of Montreal’s new album. This band’s New York shows have recently become legendary, what with the horse riding and Susan Sarandon man-pig spanking antics. There’s was nothing quite so bold-faced headline about Saturday’s show, but playing two nights at one of the city’s bigger (if sound-swallowing) venues, along with the heftier sonics and Jon Brion-assist on Priest, feels like an indication that Of Montreal are now firmly encrusted in what passes for the big leagues in indie rock. And while the new stuff has a satisfying shimmy, the biggest crowd response came during the performing of the group’s immortal bi-polar anthem “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse.”
There’s been an interesting trend in the past few years of defiantly outré groups like Animal Collective and the Dirty Projectors toning down the abstraction and pouring their weirdness into song-structures informed by thumping dance-music and roller-rink ready r&b radio pop. Of these groups, Of Montreal have, oddly, come the closest to making hip-swaying prime Prince-worshipping dance pop that could, in some better world, rule the airwaves, while still growing ever more gleefully strange. Those “fetishize the archetype” lyrics come the Priest song “Like A Tourist,” which also contains the lines “Unicorns eating baby meat/there’s a dragon rape if you want one/smokehood merlion/female erection.” And their growing popularity also allows Barnes and company to adorn their many backing dancers with the wildest accouterments imaginable, including checkerboard men, silver-surfers guys with lobster claws, some sort of Neverending Story-type laundry monster, the de-rigeur giant robot, Russian solders with goldfish heads and gold-bikini clad fairies with truly impressive wingspans. (I did sometimes worry if one of the keyboard players was going to get poked in the eye.)
Obviously, there was also some sort of story. Which was important, because as fun as the music was, Terminal 5 can flatten anyone’s sound. Which didn’t matter so much when Barnes stimulated several different sexual positions with a lady man-pig while two Firestorm-looking giants held back her aggrieved pig partner. (The pigs later hugged and made up before the encore, so perhaps this entire thing was a metaphor for…sexual liberation or something?)
Not one to be overshadowed, fellow Georgia art-n-b freak Janelle Monáe also brought out dancing nuns, people in Eyes Wide Shut/The Knife-like scary birdmasks and what looked like The Greendale Human Being. (A discerning geek, Monáe would obviously have no use for that Big Bang Theory garbage.) And while the backing dancers added to the fun, it was hard not to wish that she would spend her money on more musicians instead. Her debut album The ArchAndroid is probably the best album of the decade so far (or at least, it’s tied with Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor). Andre 3000 is too busy making stupid movies to explore the places Monae is going these days, and Thom Yorke isn’t funky enough to try to find them. But her drums, keyboard and guitar backing band (who, interestingly, are dressed reminiscently of Andre 3000’s band The Love Below from the “Hey Ya” video) can only hint at the scope of sound she and her WondaLand comrades captured on her album. (For one thing, she needs to get big enough to tour with a horn section immediately.) But she’s got enough cyborg-precise-charisma and voice to overcome such limitations that, and her android-that-got-water-on-its-mainframe-dance-moves are currently the best in the business.
In a move of immeasurable chutzpah, Of Montreal closed their set with a “Damn they’re really pulling this off” cover of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” that segued into Monáe and all associated freaks getting down to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.” (There was also a bit of “PYT” at the end there.) Watching Barnes and Monáe slow dance at the end of the night to one of the King Of Pop’s greatest moments, it was hard not to notice that these two have the combination of hooks, ambition, and flair for the dramatic/odd rarely seen since Jackson’s time. Most the people vying for his vacated throne are just so depressingly dull next to these weirdos, though both Barnes and Monáe are probably happier vying to be the new King and Queen of the misfit teens.
Author Bias: Monae’s opening set at Bonnaroo 2009 was the best I caught at the festival, though I wish she would still do the thing where she paints some abstract painting and then hands it to an audience member while singing a song.
Overheard: Me, To Drunk Woman on The Subway: “Well, the quickest way to describe them would be Prince meets David Bowie.”
Drunk lady: “That sounds awful. I’d rather listen to Wham!”
Random Notebook Dump: It’s worth noting that Of Montreal used to regularly cover “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song which in somewhat overstated music history lore helped Nirvana displace Jackson from the top of the Billboard a lifetime ago.