Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys had a nervous breakdown when he first heard the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” If “The Sunlandic Twins” is any indication, Of Montreal mastermind Kevin Barnes may not be too far behind. On the latest release by the veteran Athens, Ga. quintet, Barnes creates a trippy, whimsical little work of art, echoing not only the Beatles at their strangest, but the Beach Boys at their best. But “The Sunlandic Twins” is mostly a different beast altogether, an unlikely amalgamation of pop, indie-rock and techno — though it sounds worlds more like the Shins or Beulah than the Postal Service. While the band tends to call unnecessary attention to its sheer strangeness a bit too often, “The Sunlandic Twins” is for the most part a wonderfully melodic, gleefully left-of-center concoction.
Most of the songs on the album consist of tight, radio-worthy hooks and catchy choruses — though of course none of the songs will be on the radio anytime soon. Barnes takes his pat, pretty numbers and grinds them through every last trinket, emptying his musical bag of tricks (which ranges from the disco-fab synth of “The Party’s Crashing Us” to the distorted uber-twang of “I Was Never Young”). Add to this the group’s expert command of tempo and complex time changes, not to mention Barnes’ own audacious vocal stylings, and you’ve got an album that’s at once buck-wild and black-tie. (Just forgive the song titles.)
On “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games,” a dance floor bass line trades beats against rapidly shuffling sandpaper and a dizzy, reverberating guitar. But just when you think the beat is hot enough to freak to, Barnes shuts down the beat-keeping bass, leaving us with a veritable pot luck of clinking chimes and clomping clicks. As for the lyrics, they’re really anyone’s guess. The prevailing motif appears to be a prepubescent birthday party: “Let’s have bizarre celebrations/ Let’s pretend we don’t exist/ Let’s pretend we’re in Antarctica.”
Much of the album’s lyrics, in fact, deal with exactly that sort of perpetual youth material. “I Was Never Young” is one of the most musically daring tracks on the album, though the lyrics are the real eyebrow-raiser. “I was never young/ Even as a child/ I just never smiled.”
Barnes’ singing — high-pitched, versatile, and playful — is the perfect vehicle for his carefree, fantastical lyrical tone. Thankfully, his voice is much more tender, and better trained, than his distant cousin Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips. As producer of the album, Barnes digitally expands and contracts the vocals, layering various permutations against one another to create a lush, harmonious, unapologetically Beach Boys-inspired sound. On “I Was Never Young,” this works best during the song’s sparse, a cappella-like interludes, where Barnes delightfully sings in round with himself.
Musically, “Young” features a stuttering, stop-and-go percussion beat and electric guitar line that thrusts forward and falls away in rapid succession. The horn section starts in about halfway through, trumpets blaring over the shift to an almost salsa-like tempo. It’s neither lucid nor cohesive, but it’s so much fun you won’t mind.
The album’s highlights are its first three tracks, and its opener is perhaps the catchiest of all of them. With a surf-rock groove, doo-wop drumming and pristine guitars straight out of the ’80s (think of the Cars’ “Just What I Needed”), “Requiem for O.M.M.2” would be a pop megahit in a sane world.
Sometimes, though, the songs’ amorphous qualities can get a little grating, if only because of the self-conscious weirdness. The eccentric gloominess of “Death of a Shade of Hue” is paralleled by its structureless lyrics: “Over a sea of grief/ Scarlet died/ Above her dying mind/ Were fossilized memory imprints/ Of her favorite day.” This rhymeless stream-of-consciousness is not quite acid-fueled enough to evoke a strong image, though nonetheless it vainly strives for meaning.
On other songs, the worst perpetrator is the music itself. On “October is Eternal,” a clipped and curt piano riff stomps its way over a bed of annoyingly atonal electric cellos, holding the same note for such a long time they start to sound like offensive bodily functions. From there, the song explodes into an over-the-top cacophony of moans and cries, which quickly degenerates into a nebulous, “Revolution 9” rip-off. It’s one of the few places that the album crosses the line from interestingly quirky to jarringly bizarre.
For the most part, though, “The Sunlandic Twins” is more creative mish-mash than cringe-inducing monstrosity. Barnes and his Of Montreal cronies may be fairly batty, but at least we can all groove along. And indie-rock is rarely so creative.