Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2007, Part 14 (Of Montreal – Once)

with 8 comments

The Ns and Os win this year.

Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?/Icons, Abstract Thee EP

I’d heard very little of Of Montreal before this year. By the end of it, I’d heard a great deal, due pretty much exclusively to the absolutely amazing Hissing Fauna, and you know what? A lot of it’s not so great (including the EP released later in 2007, unfortunately). So if you’d previously written Of Montreal off as a minor, inessential band, I wouldn’t blame you. But Hissing Fauna is more than a cut above their previous work. I’m hesitant to use the word “masterpiece” with an album that hasn’t had to face the rigors of time, so I’ll invoke the infamous advertising campaign behind Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom*, and call it a pop “masterpiece?”. Yup.

As with most pop masterpieces?, Hissing Fauna has a black, black heart, informed by frontman Kevin Barnes’ temporary separation from his wife and, judging from the lyrics, an absolutely brutal bout of depression. “I spent the winter on the verge of a total breakdown while living in Norway/I felt the darkness of the black metal bands,” as Barnes puts it. As you might guess from that line, a funny, if uneasy, self-mockery lightens up the narrative of this concept album, as do the infectious melodies and inventive arrangements. Even the most straightforward pop songs, like “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse” (don’t let the title fool you – it’s one of the catchiest songs of the year), are full of interlocking drum loops; cheap, but great-sounding synth parts (I’m pretty sure some of the guitars on here are actually bad keyboard replications of electric guitar), and kitchen-sink moments. It’s as if, in recording this album mostly by himself, it occurred to Barnes that he shouldn’t even bother with the pretense of a live sound. If you need a cymbal crash, don’t try to replicate what a live rock drummer would sound like – use the actual, old-fashioned sound of two cymbals crashing together!

And so goes the first half of the album, but, oh, he’s not done. Once he lures you in, Barnes springs “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” on you (kind of like a wordier “Sister Ray” crossed with Kraftwerk), and you’re trapped with his high-in-the-mix venting for nearly 12 minutes. It’s an uncharacteristically uncomfortable extended moment that offers little of the protection given by the singalong nature of the rest of the album, and it’s perfectly executed, as if Barnes could only laugh at himself for so long before grabbing you by the shoulders and saying, “Look, this depression stuff is still really fucking serious.” “Grotesque Animal” manages to color the second half of the album, even as Barnes’ semi-fictional protagonist goes through clubbing, womanizing, and thoughts of vengeance over dance-pop landscapes that out-Beck Beck.

To invoke another classic break-up album for comparison’s sake, Hissing Fauna has the melodies and scope of Rumours, but the one-guy-in-a-studio experimentation of the Lindsay Buckingham tracks on Tusk.

* I don’t use the question mark for the Costello album.

Okkervil River – The Stage Names

I know this is becoming routine at this point. With the National, the New Pornographers, Of Montreal, and, now, Okkervil River stacked so close in the alphabet, I figured it was bound to sound like “this is the best album of the ye… wait, no, this is the best album of the year!” Anyway, The Stage Names is yet another staggeringly good release in a year full of strong contenders.

How could it not be, though? Will Sheff keeps the after-hours party moving with the band’s most upbeat set of songs and marries them to what are easily his best lyrics-to-date. In the first song, he drops this mouthful: “In the socket you spin from with ease there is no sticking./From the speakers your fake masterpiece is serenely dribbling./ When the air around your chair fills with heat, that’s the flames licking/beneath the clock on the clean mantelpiece. It’s got a calm clicking,/like a pro at his editing suite takes two weeks stitching up some bad movie. ” And it doesn’t sound forced at all. Even similarly wordy guys like Craig Finn and Colin Meloy would have trouble with the internal rhymes and rhythm, and it’s practically business as usual for Sheff. He manages to bring it down for “Savannah Smiles,” a sympathetic, but ambiguous, take on porn star Shannon Wilsey from her parents’ POV that leads directly into “The Plus Ones,” a stupid-in-concept, jawdropping-in-execution experiment in rock lyric math. Things continue in grand, groupie-fucking fashion (with entirely mixed feeling, of course) in “A Girl In Port” and the aging rock-star ode “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man” (which somehow manages to get by without even going near a chorus, lyrically-speaking). By the time things wrap up with “John Allyn Smith Sails” (poet John Berryman meets “Sloop John B.”!), you’ll even be wondering what you saw in Black Sheep Boy, Okkervil River’s great, but so serious and melodramatic, last album.

Once – Music from the Motion Picture

I covered some of my feelings on this CD in my Frames review, but I’ll stress it here. The new Frames album is good, but this is great. Having seen the film first, perhaps my perception of the soundtrack is a little skewed – maybe Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová sell the songs so well visually that I can’t help but be enamored of them. But I don’t think that’s it. This is an impressively affecting collection of broken-hearted (Hoover-fixer sucker guy) ballads that perfectly capture the mood of the character Hansard plays, whether you’ve experienced this guy in the movie or not. Interestingly enough, listening to the soundtrack is a very different experience than watching the movie. Most of the comedic moments are stripped out, the tender relationship between Hansard and Irglová is impossible to perceive (remember that none of the songs written in the movie are directed toward one or the other, but to their actual significant others). Instead, it’s an album of wounded and passionate songs without context, and damn if it doesn’t work just as well (one small complaint – I adore the ballads, but the cute “Fallen from the Sky,” the propulsive “Trying to Pull Myself Away,” and a moving solo version of the Frames’ “Say It To Me Now” are pushed toward the back, and they could have been interspersed better).

Basically, with this collection of songs in play, it will be an absolute travesty if Glen Hansard doesn’t find himself the proud owner of a Best Original Song Oscar in a couple months (and, as I understand it, though some were previously released, most were written for the movie, thus are eligible – it takes a while to release a movie, folks).

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Written by Dave

January 2, 2008 at 9:02 pm

8 Responses

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  1. “remember that none of the songs written in the movie are directed toward one or the other, but to their actual significant others..”

    That’s the perfect way to describe that album. Because the songs in the movie are being used to show each other how they feel/felt about others, it’s a similar experience that we/the audience have/has in listening to the songs as disinterested parties. I’m almost embarrassed that I never realized that about the movie itself in such clear terms, though it was swimming around in my head somewhere in there. I could probably listen to “Lies” all day long.

    Euge (soul)

    January 2, 2008 at 10:26 pm

  2. The Stage Names is great and has everything that’s great about Black Sheep Boy, but with so much more energy and better lyrics.

    Of Montreal has taken a while to get into, particularly it’s second half, but Suffer For Fashion, Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse, and A Sentence Of Sorts In Kongsvinger so I keep coming back.

    And I just saw Once for the first time tonight and the music hit me on a gut level (“I’d like to hit him on a gut level”) instantly. But the characters, the story, that only kinda got to me. So I agree that the songs work on their own terms.

    Patrick Ripoll

    January 3, 2008 at 2:25 am

  3. Re: Okkervil River

    You know, I love BSB and The Stage Names like my children (by giving them a check every month), but I think there’s a lot to be said for the lyrics of Black Sheep Boy. Granted, it’s a concept album, but the repeated images and themes really strike a chord with me. It makes the album feel a bit like a puzzle that gets more rewarding with each listen.

    At the same time, I think pop music tends to disarm my “active listener” mode, and I give less attention to the lyrics of an immediately catchy album. So I think I probably need to go back and give it a re-listen.

    So long as I’m thinking of lyrics, a quick non-sequitur: The National’s “Mistaken for Strangers” seems to getting a lot of praise for it’s lyrics and there are some great parts in there (“showered and blue-blazered” fits the theme of the song perfectly, for example), but a lot of the song is actually pretty weak, lyrically (“so you swear you just saw a feathery woman/carry a blindfolded man through the trees” – unless I’m missing an obvious reference). Frustrating, since I like the song a lot, but I really want to love it.

    Lyndon

    January 3, 2008 at 12:39 pm

  4. The lyrics on Black Sheep Boy are fine, but they’re really overstated, very general. On The Stage Names, Sheff takes more risks by using a lot of words and dealing with very specific imagery. There’s a lot more opportunity there to hang oneself as you say Berninger does on “Mistaken for Strangers” (I give Berninger some leeway on the nonsense lines, since his lyrics are so impressionistic – some land perfectly, some are bound to be puzzlers, like the one you mention and even much of “Looking for Astronauts”).

    I was recently reading an essay on Born in the U.S.A., and the author argued that Springsteen’s maturity was somehow tied to his shifting from the Dylanesque wordplay on his first few albums to the more repetitive, scaled-down approach on BITUSA. That’s a load of crap, and I present The Stage Names as an example of how wordiness can often accompany maturity in songwriting. I love Black Sheep Boy, too, but The Stage Names is more cerebral – the characters are better-drawn, and the situations are just generally more adult and emotionally complex.

    Dave

    January 3, 2008 at 1:05 pm

  5. I thought Born to Run was his shift away from Dylanesque wordplay. Well, I suppose, now that I think about it, there’s still a lot of Dylan in “10th Avenue Freeze Out” and “She’s the One”, but still there’s a shift there.

    Of course I haven’t really listened to The River that much and I do my best to avoid listening to Born in the USA when I can (the production kills me), so I guess I’m not entirely sure about Bruce’s transformation as a lyricist.

    Patrick Ripoll

    January 3, 2008 at 2:38 pm

  6. It was a gradual move away from it, but the way the songs flowed up through Darkness (see “Candy’s Room,” especially) practically required him to slip into stream-of-consciousness mode at least sometimes. His music and lyrics became and more straightforward and spare as you get toward Born in the U.S.A., and they’ve largely stayed that way since. The economy often works (I’m not gonna argue with Nebraska), but sometimes it’s just not as interesting. The repetition and strict verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus stuff really hurts The Rising’s replay value. I like that Magic shows Bruce holding back where it works, but occasionally going more ornate like on his old stuff.

    Dave

    January 3, 2008 at 5:01 pm

  7. Maybe “stream-of-consciousness” isn’t quite the right term. He doesn’t hold back on the words, and the imagery is more detailed, let’s say. He was only thoroughly stream-of-consciousness-y on the first couple albums.

    Dave

    January 3, 2008 at 5:03 pm

  8. The blog I write for on Fridays now has a link to your blog on it: http://001collective.com/blog/

    Patrick Ripoll

    January 4, 2008 at 6:50 am


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