Graceland, 381-3094, $7adv. 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 9
OF MONTREAL'S NEW ALBUM, Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse (Kindercore), is supposedly a concept album. But ask songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Barnes to explain that concept and you'll get way more information than you bargained for.
"Coquelicot is an efeblum," he says, stopping to spell out the word for my benefit. "Efeblums are these sort of fairylike creatures that are used by the ephanities." He pauses again for spelling.
"Ephanities are these loving spirits, and they send the efeblums down to earth with these bells to place inside of people's hearts. On one of these missions Coquelicot decides that it'd be fun to see what it's like to be a human. So she casts her bells aside, but instead of just living among the humans and masquerading as a human, she decides to go to sleep in the poppies and dream the life of a human. The whole record takes place in her dreaming mind."
After listening to Barnes ramble on for a few more minutes, the record's concept is no clearer than when he began. But I get the sneaking suspicion that this is the point: For this Athens, Ga., quintet, random flights of imaginative fancy are an essential component of the experience.
Since coming together in 1997, and after six full-length records for Bar/None and now Kindercore, Barnes, bassist Derek Almstead, violinist Andy Gonzales, drummer Jamie Huggins, and organist Dottie Alexander have tapped into the limitless expanse of the imagination for inspiration. Much like the Dadaist movement that revolutionized the art world in the early 20th century, Of Montreal have given pretension and seriousness a swift kick in the pants, instead choosing to create art out of chaos, absurdity, and spontaneity.
"[Of Montreal] are definitely playful and not meant to be high art," Barnes laughs. "The Dadaist way of thinking is childlike, so people automatically assume it's a childish thing. But it's not like we're living in suspended adolescence or anything."
A LESS CAPABLE BAND might have trouble putting this philosophy to work. But just as the Dada artists originated innovative ideas about looking at the world, Of Montreal find intriguing ways to use music as an avenue for storytelling on Coquelicot.
Veering wildly between genres, Coquelicot is a pastiche of '60s pop, vaudeville, free jazz rambles, and children's music. After the deceptively straightforward opener, "Good Morning Mr. Edminton," unpredictability reigns: Songs change direction abruptly, tempos slither off into oblivion, and Barnes' lyrics become more and more fantastical. There seems to be no logic or reason; a disembodied pirate voice is as likely to emerge from the confusion as a dulcet clarinet.
But despite its fits and starts, Coquelicot does follow a natural progression. While the narrative Barnes describes might not be obvious, the minimalist folk of "It's a Very Starry Night," the retro glam of "The Frozen Island," and even the curious spoken word of "The Events Leading Up to the Collapse of Detective Dullight" do build on one another. Still, by the record's final track, a 17-minute piano piece titled "The Hopeless Opus or the Great Battle of the Unfriendly Ridiculous," I felt wiped out from all the exploration.
Compounding the epic feel is the record's accompanying booklet, drawn by Barnes' brother David, which features an illustration for each song. In lurid colors and intricate detail, characters and sights from the record's narrative bleed into one another, with the luminous Coquelicot hidden in almost every frame—sort of like a surrealist Where's Waldo? (Apparently, the band's original idea of an animated feature to accompany the album was scrapped due to a lack of cash.)
While some might consider the addition of visuals detrimental to Of Montreal's "use your imagination" ideal, Barnes claims that it aids the process. "My ideas aren't very colorful and my imagination is kind of abstract," he explains. "So if you are listening to something and you are able to look at something too I think that helps create something better than just listening to the music."
And if you consider the obvious touchstones for Coquelicot—Yellow Submarine, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Elephant 6 collective (of which Of Montreal is a member)—visuals have always served to tie together loosely related songs. Really, how else would it ever have been possible to get from "Hey Bulldog" to "Only A Northern Song?"
"We didn't want to make something that could only be interpreted one way," Barnes says. "We wanted it to be open-ended so people could draw their own conclusions and create their own stories."
It's easy to balk at a statement like this, especially from someone so caught up in an artistic vision. But you have to remember that Kevin Barnes is a man who considers efeblums and ephanities an essential part of his daily world. If anyone is qualified to speak on creating his own story out of thin air, he is.