Out of the many bands that emerged from the legendary Elephant Six collective, Of Montreal are my favorite. Although some may consider that statement blasphemous, they should be able to concede that Of Montreal are both the most prolific and the most consistent. Their music may not have the emotional weight of Neutral Milk Hotel's or the sonic density of Olivia Tremor Control's, but when it comes to intelligent whimsy and monster hooks, Of Montreal can't be beat. After being blown away by their third album, The Gay Parade eight years ago, I've bought each successive release and seen as many of their live shows as possible. I even spent my 21st birthday at an Of Montreal show!
Unlike most staid indie-pop bands, I can count on them to deliver a completely different set every time. I've watched them play behind cardboard statues of themselves, stage one-act plays between songs, and change costumes and instruments with a frequency and fluidity that would make Prince nod approvingly. With talent, charisma and an exhausting work ethic (have they stopped touring even ONCE since 2004?), Of Montreal had garnered a following big enough to make this show their third consecutive Austin sell-out in as many years.
The standing area of Emo's was already three-quarters full by the time opener DJ Jester The Filipino Fist's set began. This San Antonio turntablist specializes in odd mash-ups, about half of which sounded as good booming through the club's P.A. as they do in theory. Placing Stephen Malkmus' voice from Pavement's "Summer Babe" atop the beat from the Ying Yang Twins' "Wait" was a stroke of genius; on the other hand, placing 50 Cent's voice from "In Da Club" atop an old country song was just corny. More troubling than his choice of tunes, though, was his lack of technical skill: there were frequent lapses in synchronization, and his scratching was merely serviceable. He frequently abandoned his turntables to toss lollipops into the audience. Unfortunately, he only tossed them to one side of the audience (read: not mine). The oral gratification might've compensated for the fact that there was little room in the standing area for me (or anyone else, for that matter) to dance.
The inclusion of Japanese sextet Elekibass on the bill could be interpreted as Of Montreal's way of appeasing fans who are dismayed by the increasingly electronic backdrops on their last few albums. Elekibass' sprightly guitars-and-drums pop is a throwback to the Gay Parade era, with the only major difference being the obvious language barrier, which singer Sakamoto's stammering stage banter exploited to hilarious effect. He spent entire sections of songs stumbling for words to say to the audience, only to give up and shout, "I can't speak English!" This frustration, of course, only compelled the audience to clap and shout even louder. Elekibass also share Of Montreal's theatrical aplomb. The band began its set by marching through the crowd with their instruments. The members struck poses between songs for anyone who wanted to take pictures of them. They padded their songs with more false endings than I could possibly count, only to receive the shock of their lives when the unfazed audience began chanting "ONE MORE TIME!!!" How much of the audience's appreciation was based on novelty, I'm unable to say. The band's talent, though, cannot be denied.
After a suitably bombastic prerecorded orchestral fanfare, Of Montreal walked on stage in outfits that looked like they were stolen from Ziggy Stardust's closet. They began their set by playing the first half of their latest album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, in order. Although frontman Kevin Barnes was in fine voice, he sounded strangely removed from the backing tracks. This could partially be blamed on the live mix: the Emo's sound men occasionally have trouble making instrumental setups more complex than the standard guitar/bass/drums triumvirate sound good. Multi-instrumentalists Dottie Alexander and Derek Almstead often looked confused. It seemed the labyrinthine backing tracks left no room for them to do more than play the occasional fill and dance around. The set didn't start gaining momentum until the band played Hissing Fauna standout "Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider," which provoked the set's first audience sing-along.
Unfortunately, this momentum was derailed when a man in the audience held up a huge sign with the Outback Steakhouse logo on it, presumably to protest the band's decision to allow the restaurant to use Satanic Panic gem "Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games" in a recent commercial of theirs. A bouncer rushed through the crowd and violently dragged the man out of the venue. A few songs later, Barnes addressed the audience:
"The guy who held up that sign made me really sad. Although I can understand why someone would do something like that, I'd hope that he would have more respect for me and my band than to do that. It's clearly obvious that we haven't sold out. I mean, I'm wearing a fucking G-string on stage! Let's get back to the positive vibe we had before that happened…with a song about molesting dead people!"
The band then launched into "Chrissy Kiss the Corpse," a Satanic Panic ditty that couldn't have proved Barnes' point better: despite the song's peppiness, its morbid subject matter was bound to keep it trapped in the college radio ghetto. Likewise, Hissing Fauna is a concept album about divorce and depression that boasts nearly unpronounceable titles like "Hiemdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse." Despite the Outback commercial, Barnes can't be accused of dumbing his music down for mass consumption.
Anyway, Of Montreal's set got progressively better from that point forward. On the sleazy funk jam "Faberge Falls for Shuggie," Barnes took off his guitar and shimmied around the stage; his falsetto sounded twice as supple live as it does on the recorded version. When Almstead manned the drums for the anthem "She's a Rejector," the band rocked harder than I could've possibly expected. They ended their set with "The Party's Crashing Us," my favorite song from their previous album The Sunlandic Twins, and the closest that they've ever come to writing a radio-friendly hit (even though the F-word appears in the lyrics). I, my best friend, and everyone else around us jumped up and down to the beat like the ground was a trampoline, higher and higher until the song reached its abrupt end. This was my 10th time seeing Of Montreal live, and they haven't let me down yet.