Kevin Barnes, of Athens (Georgia), is the man behind Of Montreal. His albums are whimsical collections of carefully-crafted pop music assembled and sequenced in a way to compose a flamboyant psychedelic vaudeville that occasionally mimicks the ridiculously hilarious style of the Bonzo Band. The project shares many elements with the Elephant 6's oddly baroque bands (Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples In Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control), but Barnes seems much more interested in the texture and the dynamic, in the tradition of the Kinks' The Village Green Preservation Society, the Beach Boys' Smiley Smile, early Pink Floyd, and the Beatles' Penny Lane, and his melodies are less sugary, less rotund, more like a parody of Tin Pan Alley tunes (a` la Jonathan Richman).
A childish feeling contributed to make Cherry Peel (Bar None, 1997) a sort of fable set in a county fair (In Dreams I Dance With You, Sleeping in the Beetle Bug, Tim I Wish You Were Born a Girl). Don't Ask Me to Explain, This Feeling, You've Got a Gift show the guy maturing musically from the nursery school to the high school, and a couple of sophisticated nods to the Lovin' Spoonful (Everything Dissappears When You Come Around, the jazzy I Can't Stop Your Memory) almost save the album from its retro excesses.
The same retarded childhood is centerstage on Bedside Drama: The Petite Tragedy (Kindercore, 1998), a concept album about a love story, an album that inflicts more Jonathan Richman-esque jokes on the listener (Happy Yellow Bumblebee, It's Easy to Sleep When You're Dead, Cutie Pie) while indulging in Barnes' obsession with the Beach Boys, show-tunes, marching bands and cartoon soundtracks.
The Gay Parade (Bar None, 1999) is musically more ambitious, and not so much for the arsenal of instruments (which now includes toy pianos, typewriters, whistles, pump organ, bells) and of guests (twelve altogether), but also for the more dynamic combination of Barnes' favorite vaudeville/cartoon elements that yields irresistible slapsticks such as The Ballad of Nickee Coco, The March of the Gay Parade, Fun Loving Nun, Old Familiar Way. Among the whole absurd surrealism, most songs are actually humble, joyful odes to everyday's life (Neat Little Domestic Life).
Horse And Elephant Eatery (Bar None, 2000) collects singles ("Niki Lighthouse," "The Problem With April," "Spoonful of Sugar") and rarities, among which some of Barnes' best singalongs (In the Army Kid, A Celebration Of H Hare, Joseph and Alexander, Fun Loving Nun, The Miniature Philosopher and Tulip Baroo).
The circus moves on and Coquelicot Asleep In The Poppies (Kindercore, 2001) is a (lengthy) song cycle that tells the story of Coquelicot's adventures in a dreamland. Here, Kevin Barnes is helped out by Derek Almstead (bass), Dottie Alexander (keyboards), Jamey Huggins (drums) and others (cello, violin, accordion, theremin). The effort is impressive, but the results are the usual hodgepodge of Kinks (Let's Do Everything For The First Time, Mimi Merlot, Butterscotching Mr Lynn) and Syd Barrett (Penelope, Good Morning Mr. Edminton), when not even Frank Sinatra (It's a Very Starry Night) or the Beatles (Rose Robert). Erudite lyrics (Lecithin's Tale of a DNA Experiment That Went Terribly Awry, The Events Leading Up to the Collapse of Detective Dullight) and classical interludes (Coquelicots Tea Party, The Hopeless Opus or the Great Battle of The Unfriendly Ridiculous) try in vain to add value to a pointless retro collage.
Aldhils Arboretum (Kindercore, 2002) is equally catchy and vain, sensible and predictable. No chances taken.
Kevin Barnes does almost everything by himself on Satanic Panic In The Attic (Polyvinyl, 2004), and the result is his most focused and varied collection yet. Nothing is truly memorable and everything is mildly derivative, but then that is precisely the meaning of his musical saga. Disconnect the Dots, Lysergic Bliss and My British Tour Diary the exact opposite of a musical revolution: musical stasis ad libitum. But then maybe that's an art too.
The digital/electronic arrangements on The Sunlandic Twins (Polyvinyl, 2005) are lively and engaging, almost the negation of the convoluted glitch-pop of his era. Thus Barnes manages to entertain with Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games, I Was Never Young, Requiem for O.M.M., Forecast Fascist Future, despite the fact that none of them is particularly entertaining. As usual, his is the art of being without being.