P_oblematic: Three great songs that could’ve skipped the R-word

While running this morning–I know, I hate myself too–I was listening to The Exploding Hearts, and was caught off guard by the lyrics of one of my favorite tracks, “Sleeping Aides and Razorblades”.

“You know the first time you left me, babe it was so hard and it didn’t hurt that you told all my friends I’m a retard”

The whole song is a jaunty comic depiction of an off-again-on-again relationship and uses suicidal references for levity so it’s beyond obvious that “retarded” isn’t being used in a genuinely hateful way, but it’s tough to imagine the lyrics being penned in 2016.

However it occurred to me The Exploding Hearts aren’t the only band I love to flippantly include the R-word in an otherwise excellent song. Some are more defensible than others but really “retard” isn’t really integral to either “Sleeping Aides…” or these other songs.

“How Am I Not Myself” by The Shocking Pinks

In 2007, four years  after The Exploding Hearts put out the classic Guitar Romantic, The Shocking Pinks–a buzzy, one-man-band signed to DFA–released an incredible, self-titeld record.

That record includes some wonderful, emotive songs including the heavy-lidded pop of “This Aching Deal” and the utterly perfect “Second Hand Girl”.

Sandwiched in between those songs is “How Am I Not Myself?” which is a premium slice of Sad Bastard Music.

The song is pretty much an outpouring of depressing sentiment and imagery, so it’s not totally surprising when a really depressing relation dynamic is described as follows:

I love you when you’re happy/I love you when you’re sad/But I’d rather be a retard babe than be your motherfuckin’ dad

It’s an ugly sentiment in a song that’s lyrically the seeping ooze pumping out of a deep wound so it doesn’t seem out of place, just wholly unnecessary.

“Famine Affair” by of Montreal

Improbably of Montreal have been a thing for two decades. They began as a twee-indie-pop band with bizarre concept albums as likely to contain radio serial skits and character studies as songs about love.

Around 2004, things started to pick up a funky, electronic edge and glam influences crept in. Generally, this has been for the better, and it produced the masterful Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

All those influences are present and accounted for on the excellent “Famine Affair” off of 2010’s often overlooked False Priest, but since it’s included in the post you can guess what else is included–the word retard.

In what’s quickly becoming a theme for this list, the song is about a toxic relationship ending in entirely foreseeable disaster with Kevin Barnes singing about flying toward tragedy in a glass bottom airplane. But the next lines have always seemed to need more context.

Looping like a retard/Are you still playing the race card?

They basically work as a couplet in context of the song, so there’s really no reason the whole thing couldn’t have been scrapped from what is otherwise my all-time favorite breakup song for triumphant disco and Woody Allen reference reasons.

Honorable mention to: Jay Reatard and “Mongoloid” by Devo.

Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

I just canonized my favorite Of Montreal album, but I had far more to say about it than the punchier blurbs I prefer.

Here’s the extended cut explaining why Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer is an all-time, stone cold classic:

 

 

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This is a well-regarded album, and it’s generally considered the best of Of Montreal’s later, electronic-tinged work . However, after certain listens, I thing Hissing Fauna… might be my favorite album of  all-time. Musically, it’s excellent, but there’s far more to it than pleasant indie electro-pop. This is an album that tackles the emptiness left by the disintegration of a monolithic relationship, references Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and name drops George Bataille–in the same song.

I’ve always felt the cult surrounding this album should be massive. It has traits, namely its background, confessional air, cohesive nature, the appearance of an alter ego and grandiosity, which tend to serve as hallmarks of albums considered to be classic.

Aside from interesting influences and well-crafted pop songs, Hissing Fauna… boasts an emotional rawness and honesty that borders on uncomfortable. It’s extremely similar to Pinkerton or your Joni Mitchell album of choice in exhibiting squirm-inducing reliability.  Almost all vocals and instrumental performances were handled by Kevin Barnes, while in seclusion in Norway, and the album captures his emotional and mental state as he contemplates the possible end of his marriage. It is not a particular stable snapshot, even if the music belies the weighty sentiments being tossed around. This is an album with a jaunty number in which Barnes pleads with his brain chemistry for happiness.  

The wounded artist retreating to lick their wounds and create a bold, personal artistic statement is a time-honored tradition stretching from Brian Wilson to Kanye West, and it’s always struck me as off Hissing Fauna didn’t pick up a little more clout for sharing a similar genesis.

Hissing Fauna… deals in very real emotions, but is also a bit of a concept album as the (relatively) mild-mannered Barnes morphs into the soulful, black and sexually fluid Georgie Fruit, Barnes’ musical alter ego, who is credited with performing the album’s funkier cuts. There’s really no delineation between Fruit and Barnes, because despite being a fictitious, androgynous black man, Fruit seems to be grappling with a lot of the insecurities and problems in Barnes’ life. Also, the last song on the album, which is absolutely gorgeous, “We Were Born the Mutants Again With Leafling” seems to come entirely from Barnes, and serve as a statement that while a relationship can die the connection that once existed between husband and wife is innate, and was at least a truth for a poignant stretch of time.

Hissing Fana… can be played as one continuous peace of music, as can many classic concept albums; however, a lack of a clear thesis or goal might be responsible for why this album is considered an excellent release by a pretty good band, and not a complete masterpiece.

Admittedly, the proximity of an entirely off the wall identity break and analysis of the permanent effects of matrimony convolute the album, but it’s nice that a grand statement can be made without a totally dour atmosphere.

For me, this album is the perfect mix of strong tunes, excellent production, heart-felt sentiment and humor. I truly cannot recommend finding the time to devour it in one sitting strongly enough.

 

Seven Awesome Of Montreal songs.

Of Montreal’s “Lousy with Sylvianbriar” is the band’s 12th studio album and the best received  of their last few efforts.

However, even in the releases between the nearly flawless “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?” and Of Montreal’s latest record there have been gems among the aggro-feedback-psych-freakouts.

For more than a decade Of Montreal have been responsible for some incredible songs ranging from stereotypical indie pop to Bowie-esque glam rock. This is a career-spanning list of some of their absolute best work.

1. “It’s Just So”

A sweet, gentle piano ballad which sounds equally influenced by Jiminy Cricket and Brian Wilson.

2. “My British Tour Diary”

This song is bouncy, funny and strange in the way some of the best Of Montreal songs are. It also features unexpected dalliances into bloozey guitar riffs complete with backing cowbell.

3.”Eros’ Entropic Tundra”

As great as funny, quirky Of Montreal songs can be, Kevin Barnes has a penchant for writing songs that perfectly express darker, cynical emotions.”Eros’ Entropic Tundra” is the catchiest representation of the frustrations of unrequited love and the sense of being slowly left behind imaginable.

4. “So Begins Our Alabee”

A self-loathing space-operatic welcoming Barnes’ daughter into the world. The lyrics dedicated to Alabee are saccharine while those concerning Barns are cutting. He just wants to be her, “friendly little abject failure.”

5. “Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?” the entire album.

This album is amazing. Pain induced from marital hardships inspired the most poignant, self-aware, well-crafted material in all of Of Montreal’s discography. It is also the introduction of Barnes’ alter-ego Georgie Fruit. The entire album flows together as a cohesive piece. Anyone with a spare hour should give it a listen.

6. “Our Riotous Defects”

Fittingly, this song is riotously funny. It chronicles a romance started at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting doomed by insanity.

7. “We Will Commit Wolf Murder”

As tuneful as a jumble of funk, psych-rock and harmonic vocals could possibly be.

An Album per Year for a Decade

Usually, lists touting the best music from a preceding decade are anesthetized. They fall into a neat ten year span, and praise the albums that in hindsight have become canon to that decade. They also tend to be hourglass shaped with repeat entries coming in at the beginning and the end of the decade as representations of either an influence that shaped a decade or a culmination of change in the sonic landscape.

My list is much messier; one album per year starting in 2003 and ending in 2012. There are no repeat years, and inclusion was based entirely on what album I remember liking the most from a particular year.

  • 2003: The White Stripes- “Elephant”: I received this album as a stocking stuffer for Christmas in 2003. I spent the next couple of weeks ruining my ear drums with my portable disc player at my side.

“Elephant” was released at the tail end of the two year span known im music circles as the garage rock revival. However, it sounded nothing like the other bands that were flailing away at their instruments. “Elephant,” filtered blues, country and folk music through the prism of classic Detroit garage rock.

Recorded using only technology available in the ‘60s in a matter of weeks and including a cover of a Burt Bacharach song this album was a revalation.

  • 2004: Danger Mouse- “The Grey Album”: When this album first came out it was almost an urban legend. A new musical trend called mash-ups was becoming in vogue, and this was its epitome.

A then fairly unknown DJ by the name of Danger Mouse had taken the lyrical content of Jay-z’s “The Black Album” and remixed it with vocals and instrumentation from The Beatles’ “The White Album.”

Despite being instant lawsuit fodder and being given away as a free download this album would prove groundbreaking enough to make Danger Mouse as a hit maker and producer de jour for the rest of the decade.

  • 2005: The Hold Steady- “Separation Sunday”: The Hold Steady are what I imagine Bruce Springsteen would sound like if he had spent a decade toiling at shows in bars from Minnesota to Boston and eventually New York.

The Hold Steady’s lead singer, Craig Finn, belts out sloppy Americana tinged lyrics while the rest of the band plays straight ahead rock with flourishes and horn sections that set it apart from simple meat and potatoes bar music.

Add in the fact that “Separation Sunday” is a loose concept album steeped in semi-ironic Christian themes, and you get an amazing album from the world’s most ambitious bar band.

  • 2006: The Arctic Monkeys- “Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Not”: This album a sensation in most of the English speaking world when it came out. Instantly making Arctic Monkeys a household name in the U.K. and breaking decades old sales figures.

The album is an aggressive mix of cheeky lyrics, early observations about the youth in the early 00’s and hard charging rock.

This simple but well-execute formula was so effective that at the time of its release British politicians were expected to have a familiarity with this album.

  • 2007 Of Montreal- “Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer?”: This album is schizophrenic. It bounces between euphoric singing and caterwauls of lament, and it’s all the result of one man.

While ostensibly a band, Of Montreal is mostly the work of one man, Kevin Barnes. In 2007 Kevin Barnes was going through an existential crisis after a separation with his wife

This is the catchiest, funkiest and most psychedelic break up album I could imagine. It features Barnes singing with himself in barbershop quartet fashion while a thudding bass line propels songs along.

It also includes an existential freak out song, which in David Bowie fashion Barnes transitions in an alter ego named Georgie Fruit who transcends race and gender.

  • 2008: Los Campesinos!-“Hold on Now, Youngster”: This English band by way of Wales burst onto the indie music scene with their debut.

All band members went by the same last name, Campesinos! (Yes, with an exclamation point), their lyrics name checked everything and everyone from LiveJournal and Spider-man to Jane Eyre.

Audible elements of any given song include electric guitar, glockenspiel, violin and three or four singers. It’s an explosive, unpredictable debut.

  • 2009: Phoenix- “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”: This album is the rare case in which extremely popular and extremely good overlap.

The good will generated from this catchy pop-rock album from the French band Phoenix has them slated to headline Coachella Music Festival this year, and “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” is four years old.

The album title is a reference to Mozart and the opening track is a simpatico view of Franz Liszt’s songwriting. A smart pop album was correctly beloved.

  • 2010: Kanye West- “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”: This is not the rap album that any sane person would construct with lyrical elements that question sanity, the pitfalls of fame and substance abuse and features multiple songs that take over six minutes to play.

After a painful breakup, the death of his mother and the public backlash West faced after interrupting Taylor Swift at an awards ceremony West set out to make a magnum opus.

He retreated to a Hawaii recording studio, and he flew all contributing artists to the studio on his own expense. West also required full formal attire of his guests at all times during the recording process.

It’s hard not to see comparisons to Brian Wilson’s notoriously fickle recording techniques during The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” as both efforts resulted in near unanimously praised works.

Ultimately, this album proved that while West may not be the ideal person he can create one heck of an album.

  • 2011: F*cked Up-“David Comes to Life”: This post-hardcore band from Canada was not a likely candidate to release the best rock opera since The Who’s “Tommy”, but they did.

While the singing (bellowing would be more accurate) featured on the album falls in line with the bands profane name, but the music does not.

Twin guitar attack, tight rhythm and steady, pounding drumming provide a melodic contrast to the gruff vocals.

“David Comes to Life” is made even more intriguing by being a concept album about a factory worker’s doomed love that features multiple unreliable narrators and frequently breaks the fourth wall.

  • 2012: Japandroids-“Celebration Rock”: Every song on this album could stand alone as a shout along anthem, and yet it never gets exhausting.

This album is the result of just two young men capable of making a wall of sound that captures the wistful longing for the next party even as one rages on around them.

There is also an underlying angst to the album that keeps it from being too saccharine or from feeling underdeveloped. It was certainly my favorite of 2012.